Despite attempts at reform, as in most authoritarian systems, education during the past decades in Egypt largely trained students to be obedient citizens. Oppression was administered through rote memorization, the unrestricted practice of violence in schools, the dilapidated and overcrowded classrooms in many of the underprivileged communities, the disrespect for both children’s and teachers’ rights, the large numbers of children not only out of school but ‘out of learning,’ the rapid proliferation of privatized education both through generalized and rampant private tutoring—what some have called the shadow educational system—and through for-profit education for those able to afford it. All this denied Egyptians access to quality learning, and thus to the right to dignity and equity, which became a core demand of the January 25 revolution.
Today, it is essential that a new vision for education be discussed and adopted—and this should occur as part of the process of drafting a new constitution. This will not be an easy task, given the political polarization in Egypt. Yet, make no mistake: the future shape of the educational system will have a profound impact on the country’s political, economic, and cultural development. The new debate will force Egyptians to address difficult questions in order to articulate a broad vision for society. What is the nature of the economic system and the relationship between private, cooperative, and public property? Is education to remain a ‘public good’? What is the nature of the democracy we are striving for? What is the role of civil society? What is the nature of citizenship and what are the fundamental values and skills the educational system hopes to contribute?
Egypt’s nation-builders should follow a six-point strategy in order to accomplish a paradigm shift in education in line with the rightful demands of the revolutionaries:
- Investment. There must be the political will to provide funding for education. The constitution should commit the state to an annual investment of no less than 7 percent of GDP. Constitutional articles that ensure compulsory, free, basic education should be reinforced. A new strategic plan should be developed with a comprehensive vision for education, including parameters for the relationship between the public and private educational sectors.
- Participation. A National Council for Education should be established to give the domain greater political prominence and importance, and facilitate consultation with all sectors of society. It would serve as a think tank accountable to citizens, communities, parents, and students. Professional academies, learner communities, and local school boards should be given enhanced roles. Education must no longer be the purview solely of the Ministry of Education.
- Empowerment. New pedagogical practices that empower students must be adopted. For the development of critical thinking abilities, Egyptians need to become active participants in creating knowledge and be responsible for their own learning and research. Dialogue should become central to the way young people learn and develop the necessary skills to become independent, lifelong learners. Another essential element of change is a shift to cooperative learning, where students are encouraged to work together in preparation for becoming citizens who collaborate for the good of society. This is of particular relevance given the atomization that Egyptian society has undergone in the last half century. The vision should emphasize that education is a pathway to life and not merely to the labor market.
- Equity and Inclusiveness. Constitutional articles ensuring equity and inclusiveness must be translated into actual policies serving constituencies such as girls, the poor, and children in geographically remote areas. Parliament should provide investments in education that are largely in favor of the poor.
- Management. A comprehensive education management information system must be developed to ensure information is made available to the public in keeping with the state’s responsibility to pursue equity, social justice, and effective governance. Such a system will assist the creation of poverty maps that help identify and assist disenfranchised populations. In addition, budgets, teaching practices, and learning processes as well as the outcomes of learning should be made easily accessible to the general public including parents, school boards, and local communities. The system would help highlight the importance of research in policy-making and public accountability.
- Leadership. The Thanaweya Amma (final secondary school examination) has long been the traumatic rite of passage to adulthood for many adolescents and young people in Egypt. Secondary education must be transformed to recognize adolescents as agents of change and impart them with the liberating and empowering skills required for making informed decisions and participating in society. Likewise, educators themselves must be given sufficient opportunities for professional development so that they may take their rightful place in building their nation.
Malak Zaalouk is a professor of practice and director of the Middle East Institute for Higher Education at the American University in Cairo. From 2005 to 2010, she served as regional senior education adviser for the Middle East and North Africa at the United Nations Children’s Fund. She is the author of The Pedagogy of Empowerment: Community Schools as a Social Movement in Egypt.