CAIRO — Yasmine Hamed worked hard to save money for her marriage five years ago. But by the time her daughter Jannah was old enough for school, she realized that the savings race would have to start all over.
Hamed had stopped working as a secretary after bouncing between two jobs so she could finally marry after a seven-year love story. But she could not sustain this choice for too long.
"I discovered that there is another savings journey ahead of me and my husband," she says. "We now have a kid who needs to go to school."
Like many others, Hamed is reluctant to send her daughter to public school. The quality of Egypt's public education has consistently declined over the past few years. In its profile on Egypt, UNICEF reported that socioeconomic, geographical and gender disparities are all major elements affecting Egypt's education system.
In the World Economic Forum's 2014 Global Competitiveness Report, Egypt ranked last for quality of primary education, lagging behind other nations at No. 148.
But well-established private schools are not attainable for Hamed, given exorbitant tuition fees that start at 25,000 Egyptian pounds ($3,500) for kindergarten. Hamed can't find a school to suit her needs and fulfill her desire to give her daughter a good education.
Her only alternative would be certain mid-level private schools, where annual tuition varies according to the number of students per class and the type of curriculum. Tuition at these schools usually start from 3,000 Egyptian pounds ($420) per year, and can go up to 20,000 ($2,800) for an international curriculum.
For now, Hamed is satisfied with enrolling Jannah in a school with a 30-student class capacity, as opposed to 70 in public schools. The curriculum is the same as in public schools, except it's taught in English.
Jannah's private preschool will cost 5,000 Egyptian pounds a year ($700), a sum that Hamed has to raise with her husband, who works as an accountant. This means a lot of uncertainty about the future.
"I don't know how it will look when she goes to an elementary school," Hamed says. "I cannot even think what I will do when she reaches high school."
Working overtime to pay tuition
Nagwa Moustafa, a journalist, echoes Hamed's struggle. Her salary at a weekly local newspaper has never been enough, which forced her to take a second job at a foreign news agency. But she then had to search for a third job to save for her son's education.
Moustafa's journey started when her 5-year-old son Basil was ready for kindergarten. "Enrolling him in a government school was not even discussed," she says.
As a compromise, she thought she could enroll him in an "experimental school," which is a public school that teaches foreign languages and has moderate fees of 300 Egyptian pounds per year.
But neither the languages nor the fee meant the experimental school was better than its public school siblings. "I heard of a new type of experimental school that cost 3,000 Egyptian pounds $420 a year," she says. "But it was so competitive. They accept kids in kindergarten starting from six years old."
She worries that her son would be getting a late start, which would especially delay him later if he is asked to perform military service upon graduation.
Moustafa's deliberations led her to think of a type of private international school that are at the lower end of the financial spectrum, and where both Egyptian and international curricula are taught.
"I have to pay 15,000 Egyptian pounds $2,100 annually," she says. "I used to have one job. Now I have three jobs, and my husband who works as a sound engineer also has a second job. This is just to save the money for Basil. His younger sister will follow in two years."
Sohair Mohamed, a senior contract manager who has two girls in preparatory and secondary school, pays 25,000 Egyptian pounds ($3,500) for each daughter to attend an international school.
But the fact that she pays more than the other mothers interviewed for this story doesn't mean she's more satisfied. "Even these schools don't teach them anything useful," she argues. "I believe the entire concept of education in Egypt is corrupt."
While Mohamed complains that this is not the education she aspires to for her daughters, she still provides them with what she can afford.
"This is what I can save after years and years of hard work by me and my husband," she explains.
Anxiety from birth
The education enterprise is even a burden for families whose kids are still far from starting school. Mostafa al-Gendy, an accountant, says that he has already started saving for his 2-year-old son's education.
"I planned with my wife that I will only have two kids," he says. "I already participated in community-based saving schemes with my colleagues so that I can save for his education. I take away from my salary every month for the savings, which puts me in dire straits at the end of every month."
For Hamed, a good education means a few things. "I want her to sit in a class with a capacity of 30 students, not 70 or 80 students. I want her to speak English properly, I want her to learn the skills that I fought to learn all over again when I graduated," she says.
Hamed and the others say that choosing a private school eases the tensions of Egypt's formal educational system, which UNICEF criticizes for having a "rigid conventional style teaching techniques in which participation is not encouraged and corporal punishment is commonly applied."
Mohamed herself went to a private school, but she says that even the quality of education in schools similar to the one she went to is now very low. "I don't know what happened, but I believe the needs of our lifestyle and requirements of better job opportunities are all shifting," she says.
Gendy is fixated on private schooling because of his experience with public schools. He studied commerce at Ain Shams University, where he says he learned a lot of "non-existent things."
"I studied a course about governmental accounting, about how the government prepares its accounting records," he says. "When I graduated, I discovered that the government updated its system and that these methods no longer exist. I don't want my son to learn about non-existent things. I don't want him to pay thousands of pounds after he graduates to learn English all over again after graduation."
Educational desires differ from family to family, but the difficult economic stresses associated with school for many middle-class families means they tend to prioritize functional and pragmatic desires.
Farida Makar, a researcher in education history, says that education in Egypt has been "commoditized," transformed from being a tool for self-discovery and innovation to being limited only to a vehicle for job opportunities.
School has also been tightly connected to stature, a paradox particularly relevant for members of a struggling middle class. Accordingly, "the relationship between the school and the student has become very materialistic. Education is no longer a right. It's a contract," Makar says.
Education turned into a contract the moment it was abandoned by the government, Makar contends. She points out that government spending on education has been shrinking. Today, the state spends a total of almost 94.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($13.2 billion) on education annually, amounting to 12% of the national budget and around 4% of the GDP.
"Less government spending and increasing population all lead to less quality education," Makar says. "People now need language education. They need better computer skills and soft skills needed for better job opportunities. These qualities are non-existent in public schools."
When the private sector jumped in to fill the gap, it became more of an investment opportunity and less of a real attempt to address educational problems.
Abeya Fathy, manager of the Hayah International Academy, says that Egypt's private schools fill the long-standing vacuum left by public education, particularly with regards to the capacity of the classes and the quality of subjects taught.
She believes that private education has been largely commercialized, but she blames that on the overall approach to education in Egypt.
"The approach entails that education is not about innovation, but a tool to be economically better off," Fathy says. "You have to be a doctor or an engineer to have a good livelihood. If this is the predominant culture, of course education will be commercialized, whether in public or private schools."