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 has to start all over.
Hamed had stopped working as a secretary after bouncing between two jobs in order to finally get married 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. We now have a kid who needs to go to school,” she explains.
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 says that socioeconomic, geographical factors and gender disparities are all major elements that affect access to a better educational system in Egypt.
In a World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2014, Egypt came last in the ranking of primary education quality, lagging behind other nations at 148.
But well-established private schools are not attainable for Hamed, given exorbitant tuition fees that begin at LE25,000 for kindergarten.
Like other disadvantages associated with part of Egypt’s middle-class today, 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 level of private schools, where annual tuition varies according to the number of students per class and the type of curriculum. Tuition of these schools usually start from LE3,000 per year, and can go up to LE20,000 if an international curriculum is introduced.
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 at public schools, except it’s taught in English.
Jannah’s private preschool will cost LE5,000 a year, 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 do not know how it will look like when she goes to an elementary school. I cannot even think what I will do when she reaches high school,” Hamed laughs.
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 in order 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 thought of,” 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 are have moderate fees of LE300 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 schools that cost LE3,000 a year. But it was so competitive. They accept kids in kindergarten starting from six years old,” she says, worrying that her son would be getting a late start, which would especially delay him later if he has to undergo military service upon graduation.
Moustafa’s negotiation process led her to think of a type of private international schools that are at the lower end of the financial spectrum, and where both Egyptian and international curricula are taught.
“I have to pay LE15,000 annually. 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,” she says, alarmed.
Sohair Mohamed, a senior contract manager who has two girls in preparatory and secondary school, pays LE25,000 for each daughter to attend international school.
But the fact that she pays more than the other mothers interviewed for this story doesn’t automatically mean she is the most satisfied.
“Even these schools do not teach them anything useful. I believe the entire concept of education in Egypt is corrupt,” she argues.
While Sohair 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.
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 two-year-old son’s education.
“I planned with my wife that I will only have two kids. I already participated in community-based saving schemes with my colleges 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,” he says.
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.”
Sohair herself went to a private school, but 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. When I graduated, I discovered that the government updated its system and 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,” Gendy asserts.
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 is a contract,” says Makar.
Education turned into a contract the moment it was abandoned by the government, Makar contends. She points out that the government’s spending on education has been shrinking. Today, the state spends a total of almost LE94.5 billion on education annually, amounting to 12 percent of the national budget and around 4 percent of the GDP.
“Less government spending and increasing population all lead to less quality education. 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,” Makar says.
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, asserts that Egypt’s private schools fill the long-standing vacuum left by public schools, particularly with regards to the capacity of the classes or the quality of subjects taught.
She does believe 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,” says Fathy. “You have to be a doctor or an engineer to have good livelihood. If this is the predominant culture, of course education will be commercialized, whether in public or private schools.”