After four years of being taught at a private language school, Salma Ashraf is starting the coming school year at home. Salma’s mother Doaa has decided that she will manage the education of her eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son from now on.
Doaa felt the long hours her children spent at school with a poor curriculum and a lack of activities were of no benefit to them. Homeschooling presented itself as the only option, as she was paying LE27,000 in fees for Salma and her brother.
Salma’s mother is one of a number of parents who have become dissatisfied with the quality of education their children are receiving at expensive private schools are opting for homeschooling.
Homeschooling is an institutional form that has been classified under the banner of alternative education, which includes other forms and pedagogical methods, such as self-directed education. Parents who turn to homeschooling often feel they are able to offer a richer and more explorative experience than the infrastructure and curriculum a traditional school can provide their children.
For Doaa, it is an attempt to balance the academic, athletic and artistic aspects of her children’s education. She often finds herself experimenting to find what works best.
“I want them to learn useful things,” she says, which is why she takes her children on excursions. In Fayoum, Doaa shows her children how salt comes out of the soil, and, on a trip to a recycling factory, the children are able to directly participate in operations as much as gain insight into the larger recycling process.
Although she advises them, Doaa ultimately gives her children the freedom to choose what they want to learn at the center where they take courses. The mother says that it is external activities that take time, but that she has managed to balance work as a home-based translator and the follow-up with her children.
Motaz Attallah, an education researcher, describes education in Egypt as “a farce, a failure and tragic,” where any spark in children is extinguished by a closed curriculum and an attempt to foreclose upon students’ differences. Education is conventionally understood as something that must be hierarchical, determined by the teacher and the Education Ministry, Attallah says. Furthermore, the researcher notes that a certain suspicion obtains in Egypt that sees a proliferation of threats to general values. The educational infrastructure is seen as a bulwark against any erosion to these values, inculcating among other things patriotism in children. The state’s involvement in education, says Attallah, focuses on creating citizens who are submissive to authority and who hold state institutions and its sanctioned history in reverence.
The confluence of these factors may prompt parents to turn to other institutional forms and pedagogical structures, says Attallah. However, he equally is cautious of a discourse that sees homeschooling or alternative education as a kind of panacea. Rather, he argues that praise for alternative educational models should function to deprive formal education of its sacrosanct standing, but the models should not be pursued with fanaticism.
While homeschooling is formally recognized by the state in several countries, this is not the case in Egypt, where parents must either nominally register their child at a local school or register at an international correspondence school.
Farida Makar, a researcher at the American University in Cairo’s Law and Society Research Unit (LSRU), explains that the law governing educational enrollment has been amended more than once but continues to mandate that parents send their children to school on penalty of fine.
Technically, the state does not recognize homeschooling and permit certificates ascertained via correspondence or allow self-directed educational schools to be integrated into the education system. Moreover, Egypt’s educational system bars graduates from these spheres from enrolling in public universities.
In reality however, Makar says there is a gap between law and practice. According to the researcher, many students have dropped out of school – whether because girls aren’t enrolled or because boys leave school to work – and schools are unable to control student attendance in the later stages of education, especially with widespread reliance on private lessons and educational centers.
However, Makar notes that homeschooling is only an option for those families with the necessary means. The burden of leaving Egypt’s formal schools usually falls upon mothers, depriving them of work opportunities, a luxury many families cannot afford.
Criticism beyond class dynamics also comes from figures within the government. Mohamed Saad, the Education Ministry’s deputy for secondary, private and official language education, calls homeschooling the “gravest mistake” a parent can make. Building a personality, he says, can only happen within the context of the institutional framework provided by a school.
Saad’s criticism is not something that Makar finds completely misplaced, as she points out that homeschooling is most widespread in Egypt’s Islamist circles. While alternative forms and methods of education may be progressive in theory, she says that they can also be conducive to fanaticism.
“The child may be influenced by the ideas of the family and what if the family are fanatical?” she says, adding the provision that children can equally be exposed to other forms of fanaticism in formal educational settings.
To counter some of the dangers that may come with isolation, Makar says that the best scenario would be for children to learn in groups that bring together several parents. However, even this is not without danger, as families will likely be similar to one another, holding many of the same ideas.
Three years ago, Hani al-Gamal decided to educate his sons, Ahmed, 15, and Karim, 11, registering them at a US-based correspondence school.
Gamal is aware of the possibility that homeschooling can influence children to think like their families, noting that a large sector of those who opt for the practice are Islamists trying to maintain their Islamic identity and ideas.
“My objective is not to have my children next to me, but to push them into life and a society where they can integrate and interact,” he says. “Thus I came up with the idea of the Saba’a Sanaye Center, to allow children to interact and learn from each other.”
Recalling his children’s experience in formal education, Gamal says his sons came back from school – a private language school – psychologically drained. Their school day lasted for 12 hours, waking at 6 am and returning home at 5 pm.
“The were drained, with no energy, even to finish their homework, no energy for creativity or thinking, and not enough time to play or anything else,” he says. Gamal is harshly critical of formal education, saying it “deprives children of their lives – their spontaneity and initiative is stolen from them.” In his view, formal education fashions a person dependent on governments and embedded in a global system.
The boys’ father says that his sons’ personalities have changed – they are more psychologically at ease and no longer exhibit signs of repressed violence. Despite these gains however, he continues to worry that his children are not being sufficiently socialized.
With these concerns percolating, Gamal began taking steps to found what would become the Saba’a Sanaye Center two years ago. Together with a partner, he found and furnished a suitable space, and the center began operations a few months ago in Maadi.
The idea of the center, Gamal explains, is centered on learning an occupation or a skill. “The problem is that young people graduate without tools and without skills. They might have great expectations after 20 years of education, but they still need to acquire skills to begin their lives. That is why it is important that they begin their lives early on and acquire various skills.”
Over the last month, the center has received 30 children, with Gamal and his partner continuing outreach in their community through the distribution of flyers, as well as on their Facebook page. They plan to organize several activities where instructors and parents teach children, an effort they say will mitigate the difficulties and antisocial risks of individual homeschooling and will allow families to own the center.
Centers like Gamal’s are resonating beyond the community in which they operate. Aya Ashour, an activity facilitator at the Saba’a Sanaye Center, points to the emergence of schools – such as the Mavericks School – who are adopting alternative education pedagogical models that focus increasingly on family engagement and life skills, even though they are still operating within official curricula.
Amira Saad is the director of the Barah Center for Development and Skills. Like Gamal, she established her center after an unsatisfactory experience with mainstream education and a period of homeschooling for her daughter.
Saad founded the Barah Center early this year together with a friend who specializes in kindergarten education. The center currently hosts both children who attend formal schools and who are homeschooled and is a place for a mother and her child.
The center provides both a space for children’s activities and for mothers to organize a lecture or workshop, read to their child or even find leisure time to drink a soda while their children play, she says. Saad is focused on the often-undiscussed aspects of care work, saying that mothers’ lives should not end with delivery.
She believes that schools are useful for children who prefer to listen, but the child who prefers to move, sense and watch is not easily accommodated in the setting provided by formal education. Homeschooling is an alternative, but as researchers have noted, it is not available and appropriate for everyone. For Saad, homeschooling cannot singularly be an experience of isolation in the home but must open onto interaction with others and life.
Nariman Mostafa, the founder of the Alternative Education in Egypt Network, works to support flexible educational models by opening new spaces and introducing new school programs. She hopes that schools will be receptive to alternative models of education.
What Mostafa proposes in her project is a model of education that is based on trust in students, whom she says only need to be given a certain impetus to thrive in choosing their own path. Working with parents, teachers and experts, Mostafa want to build a pedagogical scaffolding that emerges from students’ choices.
“Learning is a natural process that requires a supportive environment, and the children have the curiosity and the passion. Also, the method of communicating an idea or a piece of information is more important than the information itself. Furthermore, the child must be able to choose, because this ability is there in all human beings,” she explains.
Mostafa hopes that her methodology can serve as to a model to prompt the government to institute reform measures. She has tried to collaborate with schools to introduce self-directed education programs to challenge the notion that a certificate determines a person’s value. In place of diplomas, Mostafa suggests a portfolio that would include everything that a child has learned. She also hopes to collaborate with universities, allowing students whom have been homeschooled to enroll.
“It is not just simply that formal education is bad and the solution lies with an alternative education,” says Farida Makar. Diversity is essential for a child’s development, and this, she says, can only be found in state-run schools, where different classes interact with one another. Private schools do not offer this type of interaction, because the students who attend them come from the same class and background.
Makar asserts that formal education in some countries, such as Finland, leaves no need for alternative methods. In Germany, parents who do not send their children to school can face imprisonment, a measure institute to promote tolerance for fear of a resurgence of fascist ideas. Other countries, like the US, have acknowledged homeschooling as a parent’s right for years. As for Egypt, Makar believes homeschooling only constitutes an alternative because the other options are either a collapsing governmental system that offers children no activities, poisoned food and overcrowding and encourages secular violence and a consumerist educational economy that is not subject to supervision.
Amina Zaki, who used to work as a graphic designer but is now fully dedicated to the education of her daughter, describes the expensive costs of private and foreign schools not as the cost of buying good education, for the quality is low, but as a way to gain affiliation to a certain social class.
For Makar, homeschooling would not be such a desirable option if mainstream education were better. “At the end, if formal education had been good, progressive ideas were used in schools, a policy of equity was implemented and private schools vanished so that all governmental schools would be of a similar, good quality with more activities, practical experimentation, excursions and keeping up to date with developments of science and technology, the situation would be better and families would not find themselves in the dilemma of choosing between the deterioration of governmental schools, the costs of private schools and alternative education with its attendant problems.”