An education to relish

27-09-2017 04:49 PM

Amira Ezzat -Amir Abdel-Massih

Last week was ‘Back to School’ for Egypt’s millions of pupils and students—the primary stage of education alone hosted 2 million pupils; whereas the final school year, Thanawiyya Amma year, hosted more than half-a-million students. But this year was no ‘normal’ back to school event. Rather, it evidenced the beginning of what Egyptians aspire to be a leap in the educational process their children undergo, and the quality of education they receive: the first step on the 1000-mile-journey towards attaining a national dream to reform education. By 2030, the dream of a good education for every Egyptian child would be a reality on the ground. According to Education Minister Tarek Shawki: “Education in Egypt needs nothing short of a revolution. Our dream is to build an entirely new education system, not merely to reform the current one.”

Two-pronged problem
Education in Egypt is a double-pronged problem.
First: the current education system is largely based on outdated rote learning, not on critical thinking, research, or fostering curiosity and a love of knowledge.
Second: Thanawiyya Amma, the secondary school certificate which proclaims a student has successfully completed 12 years of school and assesses his or her final scholastic achievement, is the gateway to university or higher institutes. Given that places in Egyptian universities fall short of accommodating the choices of those who pass their Thanawiyya Amma examinations, only the highest achievers, some 20 per cent of the Thanawiyya Amma graduates, may be sure they could go to their colleges of choice. The other 80 per cent find places in universities, but not in their fields of choice; they have to make do with what was left over by the top achievers []. And given that a university degree is seen in Egypt as the way not only to a coveted job or lucrative career but also to something as basic as social prestige, it is out of question to give it up. True, the State has increased the number and capacity of public universities, and has also encouraged private universities so that their numbers are rising by the day, yet places are still far below what is actually needed. And the fact that Egypt’s population grows at a staggering 2 million a year serves to augment the shortage.
The end result is that Egyptian schoolchildren have for decades been saddled with a highly unsavoury learning process, and stressed out by gruelling competition.
Now all this must change. Curricula and methods of teaching and learning should ensure children grow into balanced, aware, well-informed, empowered individuals; and their school achievement should be a value in its own right, disengaged from their entry into university.

“Everyone’s fed-up”
According to Education Minister Shawki, schoolchildren must be free of the stress that turns their school years into living hell. “They must be given an education they can enjoy, a schooling they can fully relish,” Dr Shawki said. “This is the only way they and their parents can be happy with their school years. As matters stand, everyone [involved in children’s schooling] is fed-up. This must change; there’s no time to lose; we don’t have the luxury of trial-and-error reform.”
The Minister was speaking at the conference: “Education in Egypt: Towards out-of-the-box answers” held last May in Cairo jointly by Akhbar al-Youm Corporation and Cairo University. Dr Shawki said it was the Ministry’s first priority to overhaul the entire education system.
“Our education product is far below what any of us aspires for,” Dr Shawki said. “Public education is so deteriorated that it has to be supplemented with private tutoring, which effectively defeats the alleged free education offered by the State, making thus a joke of social justice or equality. The system is diseased with ‘Thanawiyya Amma’ which can no longer be used to assess students; a 95 per cent score no longer denotes excellence; it gets no one anywhere.”

Change from within
“Change should come first and foremost from within,” Dr Shawki said. “We should start with the Education Ministry. I know what I say may make many angry, but the fact is that the Ministry includes 1.7 million employees who consume 88 per cent of its budget. It doesn’t help that the budget is in the first place entirely inadequate to seriously develop the education system or train teachers and educators.”
“Change should start with the Ministry’s staff, teachers, supervisors, and educators,” Dr Shawki insisted.
“But change is never easy,” he said. “There is at the Ministry a current that distrusts and resists change. However, we try to look at the bright side: the several cabinet ministries involved in the educational process have among them good understanding, so we hope this can overcome the resistance to change, especially given that any change stands to involve huge numbers of Egyptian students.”
With the aim of introducing innovative strategies for education reform in Egypt, a recent conference was held in Cairo under the title al-Moallem, literally ‘The Teacher’. Dr Shawki participated in the conference which was organised by Allemny (Educate Me) Foundation of the American University in Cairo (AUC), and which brought together Egyptian public school teachers for specialised training. UK ambassador to Cairo John Casson attended, together with AUC President Francis J. Ricciardone; Ted Purinton, Dean of the Graduate School of Education (GSE); provost at AUC Ihab Abdel-Rahman; and Yasmin Helal, Executive Manager of Educate Me Foundation.

Teachers first
The AUC conference covered topics such as social innovation, children’s passions, simplification of scientific curricula, integration and impact of technology in the classroom, alternative education, humanistic methodologies in teaching, assessment and evaluation, arts and culture in schools, and dealing with learning disabilities. It sought to introduce pioneering approaches that correlate with worldwide changes in the 21st century and can apply to education reform in Egypt.
“Public school teachers in Egypt have many great ideas and are eager to learn new strategies and techniques,” Mr Purinton said. “We agree that the best investment in education is teaching quality,” he added.
Educate Me was founded in 2010 as a nonprofit organisation that holds a unique “learner-centred, skills-based” education model for developing public schools and training teachers across Egypt. On the USAID-funded project, Educate Me offers high-level training to 5,000 teachers; especially those in primary education, and those who teach computer sciences and languages. So far more than 2,500 teachers have received training.
“Teachers are the most important element of the education process,” Dr Shawki stressed. He talked of the fruitful cooperation among Educate Me Foundation, various NGOs, and the Education Ministry, praising the role played by civil societies in supporting the educational system.
“‘Teachers First’ is one of a series of projects launched by the State’s specialised councils,” Dr Shawki noted, “and aims at training teachers. Our aim is an Egyptian society where critical thinking and innovation are the norm.
“Some of our upcoming plans include digitising curricula, restructuring teacher academies and attaining international standards in education,” the Minister said.

Through its Presidential Council for Education and Scientific Research (PCESR), Egypt has put its foot on the beginning of the path of modern, learner-centred education through the launch of the Knowledge Bank in January 2016.
According to Dr Shawki, the Knowledge bank will be the largest digital library and database in the world. It should serve 90 million Egyptians and should be instrumental in reforming education, training teachers, and teaching children scientific critical thinking.
“We have partnered with the biggest publishers in the world to offer Egyptians of all ages and walks of life, free of charge, access to world-class publications that offer knowledge and information not easily found elsewhere, as well as critical tools needed in education and research. Among the publishers are National Geographic, Discovery, Cambridge, Oxford, Britannica, Emerald, and Thomson Reuters. The latter will offer Egyptian scientists and scholars access to Web of Science, InCites, Journal Citation Reports and Thomson Innovation,” the Minister said at the launch of the Bank.
Also in the pipeline, he said, are projects for enhancing higher education curricula as well as implementing programmes for raising public awareness, and making culture and continuing education accessible to all.

High-calibre technical education
Last May, Dr Shawki together with Abdel-Wahab Ghandour, Secretary-General of the State-affiliated Education Development Fund (EDF), attended the graduation ceremony of the fifth class of the Integrated Technical Education Cluster (ITEC) in Ameeriya, Cairo.
ITEC is a new integrated technical education cluster that prepares highly qualified technicians who are sufficiently versatile to upgrade their skills to catch up with the fast development in industry, relying on continuous education and training, and enjoying the flexibility to switch to different fields.
Dr Shawki said the ITEC was selected in 2015 among the best 10 technical and technological education centres in Africa. He added that it is one of the fruits of collaboration between EDF and the British organisation Pearson Edexcel, the foreigner partner that monitors and supports ITEC in the effective operation of assessment and quality assurance in all aspects. ITEC graduates may study for a middle certificate, or a higher one to earn a bachelor degree in technology accredited by the Supreme Council of Universities. He believes that the calibre of graduates will positively influence the manner in which Egyptians look at and assess technical school graduates.
For his part, Mr Ghandour explained that ITEC is the first project funded by EDF which is a public service organisation established in 2004 to be an incubator for non-traditional models for education. The plan is to ultimately develop some 2000 technical schools to match ITEC, starting with 27 over the next five ears.
Another project in action links technical and industrial schools to market needs through investing the active capital in school production. A number of schools has been producing school uniforms, realising earnings of EGP210 million in the fiscal year 2015-2016, up from EGP160 million in the year before.

Modern schools
The Education Minister said that children entering school for the first time in September 2017 would see the first fruits of changes. “The children will not be overburdened with rote learning and too much homework; they will use computers; they will learn a foreign language in a masterful manner that will allow them to be skilled at it by the time they complete their fourth Primary Year and, more important, they will be taught values.”
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Dr Shawki said, has stressed the need for better educate. “We thus plan more collaboration with Japan in this field,” he said, “in order to build more Japanese schools. In addition, we plan to expand the number of our Nile Schools to 100.” The Nile Schools are State-owned schools at affordable fees that offer modern education. According to Mervat al-Deeb, Professor of Curricula and Teaching Methods, and General Coordinator of PCESR, the Nile Schools teach a versatile curriculum that depends not on textbooks but on the achievements of specific educational objectives, giving teachers freedom to achieve these objectives. More focus is made on creativity and innovation, she said.

Egypt’s certificate
As to Thanawiyya Amma which in its current form has become a nightmare for students and their families, Dr Shawki said that it will soon gain a new name: “Egypt’s certificate”. The final grade of Egypt’s certificate will be determined according to the average of the students’ grades throughout the three years of secondary education, and it will no longer be the sole factor that determines a student’s university study.
“Now we have at the Ministry a team working on designing a new routine to replace the current Thanawiyya Amma system,” Dr Shawki said. “And in 2020, a new system will be applied for university entrance that will not depend solely on the secondary school certificate score, but will be more subject to entrance exams and enrolment plans of individual universities.
All in all, everything appears to indicate that the revolution in education has started and that it is unstoppable. Egyptians can look forward to their dream coming true, even if it takes till 2030. This in itself would be an incontestable achievement that should change the face of Egypt and bring back her age-old glory.

Watani International
27 September 2017

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