Primary crisis over school decay and staff shortfall
PRIMARY education in Egypt is reaching crisis point, with deteriorating school premises and a severe shortfall of 50,000 teachers.
Four children at a government-run primary school in the Zamalek district of Cairo were killed recently when a school wall collapsed on top of them.
The cash-strapped education authorities cannot afford to carry out spot checks on the buildings at most risk, let alone tackle the problem.
Following the collapse of the wall, the head of the school buildings authority, Samir Youssef, even suggested that the pupils themselves should be more observant. "They are supposed to complain when they see something wrong," he said.
The teacher shortage is being compounded by the refusal of many of those recruited during the past academic year to take up their posts because of the poor rates of pay on offer. Government-sector salaries are so low that many teachers have to take on second or even third jobs.
Other newly trained teachers have declined to take up contracts in remote parts of the country, exacerbating the shortage in rural areas.
"Almost all qualified teachers in Egypt want to work in towns and cities - getting teachers to accept lving in rural areas, is a different story, particularly when they're not from the region," said a spokesperson for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
The educational gap between town and country appears to be widening. Rural families have traditionally been less convinced of the merits of education, seeing little economic advantage in keeping potential wage-earners at school.
"If a peasant child in Egypt works in the field, he will earn more money in the long run than one who goes through the education system before getting, if he is lucky, a low paid job," said Nader Fergany, a Cairo-based political analyst.
It is a social trend that is reflected in the country's illiteracy rates. According to the latest United Nations Children's Fund figures, only 64 per cent of adult men and 38 per cent of women are literate.
The education department has resorted to calling on retired teachers to take classes, as well as encouraging others to do overtime.
The teacher shortage comes on top of years of inadequate investment in school buildings and facilities. As a result, many schools are not only under-resourced but also dangerous.