Since the 1960s, private schooling has been a booming business in Egypt. Although many of them require high fees, many parents believe that they are worth the financial burden because of the deplorable state of the public school system.
In order for a private school to open, it technically needs a license from the Education Ministry guaranteeing that the school conforms to certain state standards.
However, allegations have surfaced that many students at private schools in Egypt are not registered at the Education Ministry, but are registered instead at what teachers call “phantom schools.”
Phantom schools are private schools with licenses but no students or faculty. They exist solely as a front for the scores of private schools that have been unable to get a license from the Ministry of Education.
According to Mohamed Rizkallah, a teacher at Green Community School that registers its students at these phantom schools, the entire practice is a scam. The owners of the phantom schools, who often have contacts high up in the Ministry of Education, make money without putting in the effort of actually running a school.
“A lot of schools aren’t registered with the government because it is very difficult for them to get their licenses and the government isn’t making it easier for anyone because they know there is a lot of money in private education. So what happens is that there are some people who work closely with the government to register ghost schools,” he explains.
These ghost schools do not need to do anything besides register students – for a fee.
Yomna Ismail, the public relations officer at the Green Community School, freely admits that school did not have a license and that they paid to get their students registered at another school.
She does not want to reveal the name of the school they register their students at or how much they paid overall, but according to Rizkallah, the amount a school owner with a license can make from registering students is considerable.
Ismail stated that Green Community School pays around LE1,000 to LE2,000 per student to register them at that school.
However she contradicts Rizkallah, saying that the school the Green Community School registers their students at is a functioning language school, with teachers, students and a curriculum. The only difference between the schools she says was that one had a license while the other did not.
Sarah Hassa, an English teacher at the Greatness Language School, also confirms that her school registered their students at another school, although she is not cannot confirm whether or not it was a phantom school.
Rizkallah says that he heard this practice was widespread throughout mid-range private schools in Egypt. He states that one of the public relations officers at his school, Mohamed Mostafa, told him that 90 percent of private schools registered their students at phantom schools. Mostafa could not be reached for comment and this figure could not be confirmed.
The reason that both Hassa and Ismail cited when asked why they were teaching students at an unregistered school is that Ministry of Education makes it almost impossible private schools to get licenses.
According to Ismail, not only are there a seemingly endless amounts of regulations that the schools have to fulfill, but Education Ministry officials must be bribed in order for an application to go forward. “We have been trying get a license for almost two years,” says Ismail.
Farida Makar, a researcher in education history, says that she had not heard of phantom schools, but that she would not be surprised if they exist. “It’s shocking, but normal,” she says wryly.
“[Private schooling] is such a lucrative business, and this is not based on any fact, but I am sure there is a mutual benefit between private schools and the ministry,” she explained.
Part of the reason students are registered at unlicensed schools are because of the failings of the public education system, meaning that more and more parents are registering their students at private schools and spending almost all of their savings to do it.
Egypt ranks at the bottom of global education rankings, coming in at 148 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2014.
The UNICEF page on education in Egypt states that, “the quality of education remains a major challenge that hinders the capacity of children to develop to their full potential.”
In response to the lacking public education, private schools for middle-class families have sprung up in droves. These schools typically cost around LE3,000 per year and offer a combination of state and alternative curriculums. Families struggle to send their children to these schools, in hope that a good education will lead them to have better lives.
However the amount of students attending private schools should not be overstated. Although the amount of private schools is increasing, Makar points out that only three to five percent of Egyptians go to private schools.
Nevertheless, the market for private schools has, according to Rizkallah, left a gap for phantom schools to spring up.
Abdel Hafeez Tayel, the head of the Egyptian Center for the Right to Education, says these schools exist because of corruption in the Education Ministry and inadequate laws governing the private school sector.
He asserts that most private schools operate for five to six years before getting a license.
He also thinks the Education Ministry is complicit in this practice, explaining that when schools are built they must register for many certificates, meaning that a supervisor visits them, sees them running without a license and allows the practice to continue.
Tayel adds that many of the important officials at the Education Ministry send their children to private schools and as a result of that, “there are concerns about the relationships between the Education Ministry officials and the owners of private schools.”
He believes that unlicensed schools often pay as much as LE3,000 to LE5,000 per student in order to get them registered at licensed establishments. While he had heard of phantom schools and was not surprised at the practice, he said it was also common for functioning schools to register students that do not actually attend.
Tayel says that part of the reason private school sector is so unregulated is that it is very corrupt. “[Private schools] give presents, give money and give bribes to those responsible for the private school sector in the Education Ministry.”
Ismail also believes that bribes are necessary to make the licensing process go forward. When she was asked if having contacts high up at the Education Ministry would make the entire process go faster, she unhesitatingly answers, “Yes, I believe so.”
Tayel states that a further issue with the Education Ministry allowing so many unlicensed schools is that it endangers the students at these schools. “There is no guarantee that the land the school is built on is stable, and that the students are studying proper subjects. There is no supervision of the way things are taught at those schools.”
He believes the best way to solve the problems of unregistered and phantom schools, is to reform the Education Ministry. Specifically, he called for a reform on laws governing the private school sector.
“Education law in Egypt does not cover how private schools should be run. Private schools have many ways to beat the law, the problem lies in the law itself,” he says.
Mada Masr attempted to contact the Education Ministry multiple times, but they were unavailable for comment.