Mass cheating in Egypt’s nationwide Thanawiya Amma final examinations last week has left Egyptians shaken and livid at an education system in which inefficiency and corruption run wild. Twelve Education Ministry officials have been detained after answers to the finals were posted on Facebook; they face charges of “intentionally harming public interest and funds”.
As the nation engrosses in discussing the severely flawed national education system and its ethical backdrop, Watani today takes a look at an alternative education structure, private education, which has for long decades existed alongside the national system. Private education is today becoming increasingly popular with all social classes in Egypt, to the point where many parents are willing to forego basic necessities to be able to enrol their children in private schools. Among the most popular of these schools are those owned and run by the Evangelical Synod of the Nile. Watani talked to Rev. Mohsen Mounir, Secretary-General of the synod.
“It is a fact that nations develop through knowledge, science and technology. As much as we are able to use science and its tools we take our place among civilised nations. This is why it is on top of my priorities that our schools keep up with the technological tools that help the education and learning process,” Rev. Mounir began.
To start with, please tell us the history of the schools affiliated to the Evangelical Church’s Synod of the Nile
The schools were founded when the Evangelical Church started its service in Egypt. The slogan of the Church is “Caring for human beings… All human beings”, meaning that it provides its service to everyone who needs it without any discrimination on any basis. This is why the Protestant Evangelical Church in Egypt began its mission in Egypt at the close of the 19th century by founding a clinic and a school. The idea of founding series of schools was thus born. We began to establish schools in towns and villages, and now we have 23 schools in ten governorates all over the country from Mansoura in the north to Luxor in the south.
Where was the first school founded?
The first school was the Assiut American College founded in 1901 when the first American Mission came to Egypt. What is today the Ramses College for Girls started off as the American Mission College for Girls in 1910, and this was followed by several schools in other parts of the country.
There is a huge demand by parents to enrol their children in Evangelical schools. Why is this?
Since our target and the reason for founding the schools is to serve the human being, we care about education and ethics in our schools. We have been able over the years to enhance these in all our schools so it has become something that distinguishes us, and this is why parents trust us. We conclude from the comments we receive from parents that they could have sent their children to the most expensive schools, but they chose the Evangelical Church schools because they cared about the ethics as well as learning.
We do our best to keep schools fees affordable for the middle class, and we also provide some advantages based on internal initiatives and other initiatives by the Ministry of Education.
How do you manage to give priority to the process of education over that of merely imparting knowledge in your schools?
We are keen that our schools should not merely offer a good academic teaching/learning process but should offer a superior education that prepares our students to lead full, fruitful lives. I know that many schools focus on academic excellence and ignore the more holistic education process, but we are keen to provide and enhance both. We apply strict standards in behavioural issues and never tolerate any breach; we communicate continually with parents and we teach values and proper behaviour, including etiquette.
Do you have any plans to increase the number of schools in light of the high demand?
Yes, there is a plan for the regions in need. The Synod sees that there must be schools in Hurghada, Sharm al-Sheikh and Minya. Actually, there are negotiations to buy a piece of land in Hurghada for that purpose and the same applies to Sharm al-Sheikh as we have received lots of requests to establish a school there.
As for Minya, it is one of the most vital cities in Upper Egypt, but we don’t have a school there and we have received repeated requests for one. We are also expanding the scope of certificates we offer. Three years ago we opened an IGCSE programme supervised by the British Council in Cairo. This includes five classes with 20 students in each.
Do the graduates play any role in the Nile Synod schools once they graduate?
There is an officially-registered association for the alumni of Ramses College. We have compiled a guide that includes the names of the graduates, and they also have an office for the alumni inside the school. They handle a number of roles such as responsibility for a nursery for the children of the staff.
What is your opinion of the current curriculum of the Ministry of Education? Do you think it needs improvement?
My opinion is that teaching is not based on textbooks alone, but is acquired from the school and teachers. The Ministry’s curriculum includes topics chock-full of unnecessary details and mainly depends on rote learning, not on understanding and creation. This does not make for a good education.
How do the Nile Synod schools handle this predicament?
We teach the ministry’s curriculum, of course; it is obligatory. On the other hand we deal with the best publishing houses so as to have complementary material to enhance the innovative streak in children. We also arrange for regular training courses for teachers to train them in applying new methods of teaching.
Is the ministry improving the education process so as to keep up with the technological evolution?
The ministry must update the education system, but it shouldn’t start with the older classes because how can they be required to suddenly switch to modern methods of learning and technology when they did not start with the basics? Only those who use these in the normal sequence of their schooling years can achieve good results.
What is your vision on how to reform the educational process in Egypt?
This is one of the most difficult questions. It is easy to talk about reform but very difficult when it comes to application. So far, practical indications don’t reflect any serious official endeavour to reform education because the know-how is missing. We don’t have comprehensive systems on when and how to start, or how to phase out the current system. Reforming education starts with the strong belief of educators and politicians that the country will never achieve any development without good education; and it is not only the job of a minister or the role of a ministry but it is the responsibility of the entire State and community.
The other thing is, we don’t have to start from scratch. Many countries, such as Malaysia and Singapore, had the same problem and managed to achieve great improvement in education; we can benefit from their experience. Most important, however, is that the plan should be adopted by the State in its entirety not only by the ministry.
How can the chronic problem of private tutoring, which parents opt to give their children in order to compensate for poor schooling and to guarantee good grades, be solved?
Private lessons are a societal problem, but we tend to deal with it the same way as we deal with many other ‘chronic’ problems we suffer from: by looking at the symptoms without searching the root causes. We need to solve the root causes first.
Is today’s teacher oppressed or oppressor?
Both. He is oppressed because he is under so many pressures from his employers, students and their parents, the entire community in fact. This drives him to deal with what should be a mission as a mere job. And he is oppressor because he seeks to earn more money all the time and may neglect his duty and mission.
It is no secret that our society today suffers from a serious problem of declining morals. Can it be overcome through managing ethics and morals as part of the educational process?
We all suffer from this problem, simply because our sons and daughters are part of this society and they are affected by what goes on in it. The worst cases are those where there is a mix-up between freedom and chaos. People say whatever they want to say without considering the manner, time or expression so the situations turn to chaos. Regrettably, we face this problem not only with students but also with many parents when they deal with the school. We always do our best to contain situations to avoid clashes. Realistically, not everyone can do that, but our managers are distinguished by their abilities to listen, contain the situation, provide clarifications and solve the problems.
How do you deal with non-Christian students without making them feel alienated because the school is affiliated to the Evangelical Church?
We provide our services to everybody regardless of religion. They are not especially geared towards Christians or non-Christians; they are provided equally for everyone who needs them. Some schools, because of their locations, have more non-Christian students and staff. We give the same importance to religious studies of both Christians and non-Christians and support them by other activities that improve ethics without referring to any religious text.
We do the same in religious studies by providing the same values and ethics and providing a religious reference so that the student gets the information both ways. We are very keen to teach children the values of justice, love, peace and cooperation, and all these concepts don’t necessarily need to be backed by religious texts.
A few years ago there was an initiative by the ministry to include the topic of ethics in the curriculum, but it was put on hold. Do you think if applied it would be beneficial and could replace the subject of religion?
It is preferable to keep the subject of religion and add to it that of ethics. If we cancel religious studies, it would give a wrong impression that the State is playing down the role of religion in our society, and perhaps this was the reason for putting the subject of ethics on hold.
Relations between the Ministry of Education and private education is adversarial at the best of times. What do you think is the reason for this?
The ministry must realise that private education is part of the system and not outside it, and that it is an investment in human resources. But the ministry tends to deal with private education as though it were a strange entity, not a key part of the educational process.
I can’t deny that some school proprietors are exploitative and arrogant, and are thus part of the reason why the ministry—and many in our community, for that matter—are hostile to private education.
Finally what would you like to say to teachers?
I would like to say that what we do is a mission not a job.
8 June 2016