Nervous breakdowns, coma, lack of sleep, eating disorders, overstress, panic attacks and a great many private lessons mark the annual nightmare coinciding with the Thanawiya Amma examinations in Egypt. These exams lead to the Egyptian General Secondary Education Certificate and serve as the entrance examination for Egyptian public universities.
With Thanawiya Amma ongoing and coming to an end in a few days from now, and in an attempt to find out “What’s it all about?” Watani talked to those involved in the dilemma.
Students and parents
“I can’t stop worrying; I wish I could bat an eye and this nightmare would be over and I would be enrolled in the college or university of my dreams,” was the feeling expressed by Thanawiya Amma student Rami Magdy. “I’m so spent. I wish I could fall into a deep sleep,” he said.
Another student, Mariz Kyrillos, wants to complete her Thanawiya Amma exams just to, “get rid of my mother’s nagging.”
“I’ve done my best throughout the year, and now I expect the result,” student Peter Muhab told Watani. Another student, Yasmine Mustafa, finds herself weeping incessantly. “I feel that I can’t remember a thing. I don’t know what will happen if I don’t score well and can’t enrol in my university of choice,” she says.
We also talked to parents, many of whom are putting pressure on their children. “I am waiting to collect the harvest of the years,” one mother told us. “I am praying that my son could achieve what I couldn’t do myself.”
“This year, we—the whole family—have gone through the hardest times. We were as if in a state of war and ready to confront the enemy. Not only that, but I have spent about EGP20,000 on private lessons,” says Murtada Kamal, father of one of the students.
Saeed Abdel-Azim, a professor of psychology at Cairo University, points at the difference between one student and another. “There is the hard-working student who has been active since the beginning of the year; and there is the other who postpones studying until the last moment, and yet a third who does not care at all.
“But if that hard-working student panics and loses self-control,” Dr Abdel-Azim warns, “he or she might forget everything they worked so hard at learning.”
His advice to students is to take enough sleep and stay away from caffeinated drinks. These keep a student awake all night at the time when he or she cannot afford to be deprived of sleep. If they do, Dr Abdel-Azim says, they are bound to get confused. He also advises parents to provide a relaxing climate; turning off the television and not entertaining guests during this period.
According to a study by education researcher Mary Ramsis, not everyone who gains top marks is better than others.
“Parents ought to realise that Thanawiya Amma exams represent a critical juncture for their children, and they should be more understanding and loving,” Ramsis says. “They should encourage their sons and daughters instead of depicting Thanawiya Amma as the monster that is chasing them and shaping their future. Encouragement motivates them to study and raises their levels of healthy psyche. Medium intelligence plus loving and care equals high intelligence, while high intelligence plus trouble and struggle equals low-level intelligence, she concludes.
“Parents should also remember, for instance, that Naguib Mahfouz, the novelist and Nobel Laureate, was a medium-level student, and William Edison’s teachers branded him as unsuccessful,” Ramsis says. But she stops short of advising what parents and students are to do in case the youngsters turn out ‘unsuccessful’.
A deficient system
Kamal Mughieth, an expert in education, told Watani that secondary education in Egypt is a weak and deficient system. “It has nothing to do with promoting maturity,” he said.
In his opinion, the State bears the main responsibility for this. “When we find large numbers of students crowded into inhumane classes, it is impossible to realise a positive interaction between students and their teachers,” Dr Mughieth says.
“The curriculum and exams depend too much on rote learning,” he believes. “They do not encourage creativity nor do they promote critical thinking. The harsh competition is nigh to conflict. Unfortunately, the ones who win this competition are the ones with enough money to pay for private lessons. This ends in what we have witnessed of suicide attempts by some students.”
Dr Mughieth suggests dividing Thanawiya Amma into more than one phase over the year, which would reduce stress on both students and their families, since it would allow the children to study step-by-step. But Dr Mughieth does not explain how this may relieve the pressure on the universities which would then be inundated with huge numbers of students who scored brilliantly and now wish to enrol in the universities that cannot possibly accommodate them all. The fierce competition for enrolment in free-tuition State universities would still remain, and hence the pressure on families and students for overachievement. Education at private universities in Egypt comes at hefty prices, but these universities again cannot accommodate all the numbers wishing to enrol. Meaning that the desire and innate stress for overachievement still remain.
In a research conducted by Nivert Rizkallah for an MA degree from the University of London, Rizkallah notes that the education environment in Egypt is fiercely competitive for children and their families. This is largely owing to sheer numbers; places available for students in public, free-tuition universities can accommodate some 80 per cent of Thanawiya Amma graduates, but only the top achieving 21 per cent secure places in their college of choice. Others have to do with second or third choice, or with colleges or institutions they do not at all prefer but which have available places. In 2014, the Minister of Education declared that 334,179 students had passed their Thanawiya Amma exams. More than 12.5 per cent of them scored between 95 and 100% of the full grade, 18.1 per cent scored from 90 to 95%, and 16.9 per cent scored from 85 to 90%. Altogether, the Minister said, 47 per cent of those who passed the Thanawiya Ama exams scored above 85%. Maktab al-Tanseeq, the official authority in charge of placing Thanawiya Amma graduates in public universities, was able to place only the first category and half of the second—altogether some 21 per cent of those who passed their Thanawiya Amma exams—in their colleges of choice. The final figure announced by the Ministry of Higher Education declared that around 300,000 Thanawiya Ama graduates had finally been placed in public universities and higher institutes.
Predictably, Rizkallah says, the fierce competition places parents and students under a lot of pressure, especially given that a university degree is mandatory for a good job in Egypt and, consequently, for social prestige.
Dr Abdel-Ra’ouf al-Dabbea, Professor of Sociology at Sohag University, believes the community is mainly at fault. “We exaggerate in emotionally directing our energies towards Thanawiya Amma as a step that qualifies students for university—no for life,” Dr Dabbea said. “The whole family is tense because they have a Thanawiya Amma student and are overspending on private lessons, which reflects poorly on the students’ psyche and leads to fear and anxiety.”
He refers to the importance of reconsidering university entrance regulations and focusing mainly on jobs required on the market. “Social culture must also change. Unfortunately, people in Egypt view Thanawiya Amma as the only gate through which students are able to enrol at top universities; it is the rite of passage to a social prestige and a successful life. Our society belittles students who have not achieved top marks, regarding them as second-class citizens.
“The Egyptian community,” Dr Dabbea notes. “Looks down on handcrafts and technical jobs, ignoring the huge need for such qualifications on the job market.”
24 June 2015