How Egypt’s public schools became isolated

The relationship between civil society and modern education in Egypt dates back — at the very least — to the founding of Cairo University in 1908.

In Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt, Donald Malcolm Reid demonstrates how the Fuad I University Project (as it was called at the time) saw light, partially due to funding from private individuals with royal patronage. In other words, societal and individual efforts contributed to the establishment of one of Egypt’s leading educational establishments.

While individuals such as businessmen are widely engaged in the founding of private school enterprises across the country today, it is extremely difficult for civil society organizations, individuals and others to access public schools in Egypt.

Unlike what many motivated and eager young people with promising project ideas envision, the simple act of walking into a local school to volunteer your time or introduce a new activity is highly complicated — almost intentionally so.

Activities we often hear about in other school systems around the world — such as bringing a speaker to class, conducting workshops or introducing students to local community projects — are almost non-existent in the Egyptian public school system.

In fact, public schools today are largely isolated from the broader society, with students cut off from the latest social, artistic and athletic developments during school hours.

Law No. 139 of 1981 on education distinguishes between public and private schools. The law puts various restrictions on the curriculum and structure of public schools, while their private counterparts enjoy relative freedom. It is thus no surprise that groups wishing to collaborate with public schools report major obstacles.  This is especially true if compared to the relative ease they face when approaching private schools.

One of the major reasons why access to public schools is so difficult is the system’s extreme centralization. Even though decentralization has been at the heart of the Ministry of Education’s long-term strategy at least since the late 1990s, the overall structure and chain of command within the ministry tell a different story.

For example, in order for registered NGOs to implement projects at the school level, they must first fill out an application and submit a project proposal to the ministry’s Department of Civil Society Organizations in Cairo. They must then pledge to provide reports on their activities and funding information, and must allow enough room for the department’s officials to oversee their work. The Ministry of Education’s website clearly states that it is entirely up to ministry to decide in which schools a project should be implemented, and whether it fits the ministry’s overall objectives. It also indicates that the ministerial security department must review applications coming from NGOs before providing official approval.

Such restrictions make it extremely difficult for NGOs to access schools, especially smaller organizations. In fact, most NGOs benefiting from this arrangement are large establishments that offer wider-ranging projects, and are deemed “safe” by the authorities.

If this avenue fails, one can try to directly contact the idarat ta’limiyya (education districts). These entities are also largely responsible for approving projects for schools within their jurisdiction.

Alwan wa Awtar, an alternative, progressive NGO that believes in learning through music and art, was approached by a local school next door for a potential collaboration project. School teachers were very enthusiastic about the collaboration and they even brought the principle of the school on board. But the district rejected the school’s request for collaboration. In the rejection letter, the school was clearly warned not to “collaborate with any civil society organization.”

Contacting the education district seems like a less centralized procedure — but, as illustrated above, it is not always successful. This is perhaps why Mini Medina, a project which offers children a mostly adult-free play environment in which they create their own version of society and of their city, decided early on not to engage with them. Instead, they focus on collaborating with other NGOs.

It is also why Tahrir Academy, an online non-profit collaborative learning platform aiming to introduce innovative learning materials and blended learning methods to public school teachers, had to shift its strategy. They now work on crowd-teaching, and collaborate with NGOs that are already registered with the ministry.

Fear is another obstacle to school access. Members of AFCA for Arts and Culture, an organization that uses education through arts to build creative generations and empower children and youth, informed me that initial contact with Education Ministry officials is normally met with suspicion and rejection. Ministry officials, whether at the Department of Civil Society, the education district, or even school principles themselves, fear that involvement with individuals or groups not officially recognized by the ministry can negatively impact them personally and professionally. This is why many reject collaborative projects, even when they seem beneficial.

The current fear-mongering tactics to tarnish the image of civil society as a whole — whether through repressive legislation or through smear campaigns in the media — further fuel the mistrust that individuals have vis-à-vis such initiatives.

Despite it all, civil society organizations working on education are incessantly exhausting all means possible in order to collaborate with public schools. But it seems that even having contacts at the ministry is not necessarily helpful. Organizers of the Out to Sea Project, an educational environmental museum, were willing to provide free transportation and cover all costs for public school students to attend their exhibition — but their high-ranking ministerial contact was not helpful and their plans fell apart, they explained to me.

Other means, such as directly contacting schools, the local education board of trustees or other ministries, are also always on the table. Doum Cultural Foundation, for example, has recently taken advantage of a new protocol of collaboration between the culture and education ministries to put forward previously ignored projects.

Opponents of this “opening up schools to strangers policy” often fear that these projects may open the door to radical thoughts, or expose students to inappropriate content. Such fears are not baseless, but they should be met with caution.

Freeing up the process through which organizations and individuals enter school walls does not necessarily mean free range. In fact, there is no harm in coming up with a system of checks and balances at the local level between the school and the community. In order for this to take root, we must initiate a meaningful conversation about the legal, political and cultural tools necessary at the community and school levels in order to make informed decisions about content and form.

This requires us to begin breaking the cycle of fear that leads to the rejection of individual and community projects simply because they seem “foreign.” Channels of communication between the school, the community and all concerned stakeholders must therefore be opened in order to establish guidelines and strengthen ties.

By keeping schools inaccessible, we miss out on multiple opportunities to improve our education system as a whole. Granting individuals and organizations access to public schools could be a way of furthering the ministry’s efforts towards the long-standing goal of decentralization, for example.

Proper access to schools for individuals wishing to volunteer their time to improve education and introduce novel methods of learning can also help us resist the homogenous effect of textbooks.

In The Intellectual Development of Modern Schooling, Alberto Arenas explains how textbooks tend to limit the content, narrative and amount of information presented to students, ensuring that the same knowledge is passed on from year to year. If schools are introduced to new sources of learning with interesting and novel material, we could then break loose from the ministry’s tight grip over textbook content. 

By opening up schools, we can also enhance student and teacher exposure to progressive methods of education, since many of the civil society groups mentioned above work with cutting-edge pedagogical strategies that public schools can most definitely benefit from.

Finally, we must acknowledge that such initiatives would strengthen students’ sense of social engagement and provide an array of pilot projects for the Education Ministry to study and replicate.

In short, it would benefit creativity, artistic expression and critical thinking.

Schools should not be pockets of isolation. They should be part and parcel of a collaborative effort in which the community and the school are in a constant state of engagement and conversation to explore all options and co-create solutions. 

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Farida Makar