A Conversation with Mahmoud Abo El-Nasr: Developing Egypt’s Schools
Egypt’s minister of education, Mahmoud Abo El-Nasr, has one of the country’s most difficult jobs. More than 17 million students in primary and secondary school, according to the latest Unesco figures, depend on the smooth functioning of the ministry.
He was appointed the education minister in July of 2013, after serving as a deputy minister. Prior to that, he worked as an engineering professor at Ain Shams University and in multiple administrative posts at Ain Shams and Misr University of Science and Technology. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom, and did post-doctoral work at Washington State University in the United States.
Al-Fanar Media sat down with Abo El-Nasr on a recent trip of his to London. He spoke of the need to update archaic curricula, train teachers, decentralize administrative responsibility and provide access to education for the 1,043 Egyptian villages without schools.
What are the biggest problems facing the Ministry of Education?
There are many problems, including the size of the budget, pre-existing work ethic and red tape. All of these things hinder our work. To overcome some of these problems, we have produced a book for teachers titled, Values, Ethics and Citizenship. The teacher is the cornerstone, especially in instilling ethics. Planning is important, but the teacher in the end has the largest effect on students. One of the important problems that I face is the declining level of teachers in terms of modern and effective teaching methods.
Curricular development has also been largely neglected. The ministry started a project in partnership with the European Union that is focused primarily on reviewing the curriculum for a more specific development [dealing with methods of teaching and learning], after finding that about 30 percent of the teachers rely only on memorization and reproduction, rather than creative thinking. Our plan is to fully develop new school curricula within three years. Last year we developed 30 percent of the curriculum and this year we are working on developing another 35 percent of the remaining and the remainder this coming year.
What are your plans for improving the preparation of secondary students for higher education?
I am aiming for the application of an “Egyptian Baccalaureate” to replace general secondary education. It will resemble the International Baccalaureate. We also have two trial schools where we have implemented STEM-focused systems (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). These two schools entered an international contest in the U.S and were ranked third. There are many issues and obstacles associated with this plan, but we intend to have a STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] school in every governorate. With respect to the International Baccalaureate, we are still in the early phases of implementation. It will take time as this requires much training of administrators and teachers.
What is the purpose of your visit to London?
I’m here on a trip organized by the British Council to conduct what is called a “study visit” with the aim of developing Egyptian education. This visit comes within the framework of planning major changes for the period starting 2014 to 2030. . . This type of long-term plan requires access to other experiences in education to assess our plan and gauge our progress. . . In Egypt we are beginning to introduce the concept of “supporting” schools.
What are these “supporting” schools?
Egypt has 278 school districts. So we choose one school per district that will be equipped with all the facilities needed to assist neighboring schools and improving their teaching and learning methods until these schools receive the same capabilities and accreditation. It would start with 10 neighboring schools for each supporting school. A year after, each of these schools will be able to support 10 other schools and so on. This means that during the two or three years all schools will become eligible for the accreditation we seek.
Will these schools be accredited locally or internationally?
Currently it will be local. However accompanying me on this trip are the head of accreditation and quality control and his deputy to work on giving Egyptian schools international accreditation through cooperation with Britain and Finland. We hope that once our local accreditation body receives international accreditation, Egyptian schools that are locally accredited could, in turn automatically receive international ones.
Many villages in rural areas are deprived of quality education or access to schools altogether. How are you coping with this problem?
I came in and there were 1,043 villages completely deprived of accessible schools. Last year we were able to cut that figure down by six hundred units. We set up “one-class schools.” The schools cost about 250 thousand pounds, (about $34,500). Businessmen, NGOs and Unicef participated in financing and developing this project. Our goal this coming year is to fund and provide for the remaining 443. These schools are only at the elementary level. They solve the problem many families have of young children being forced to walk long distances to school.
The general need of new classrooms to decrease congestion far surpass that. I had enough in my budget to build 8,000 more classrooms. With the additional support of private capital and organizations we were able to build 24,000 so far. Around 70 percent of these classrooms were built in the (poorer) Upper Egypt and the rest in Lower (Northern) Egypt.
Many called for your resignation after a negligent school bus accident lead to the death of 18 children in the Beheira governorate.
This was a private school bus. It was that school’s responsibility, not mine. Responsibility comes with empowerment. I effectively have no power over this school in this area. How am I supposed to be responsible for them?
One of the biggest problems in Egyptian society is how the vast majority of public school students feel they need private tutoring to pass. What causes this phenomenon and how are you facing it?
If the student finds what he needs in school, he may not need private lessons. If there were more space for incoming students in universities, there wouldn’t be this fierce competition among students in secondary school. Teachers also need more training to provide better in-school education. We have also began providing bonuses, increasing the minimum wage of teachers, which is now 1,700 pounds (about $234).
Does Egypt need a complete revamp of the education system or does it just need further development?
Both. I can’t remove all of the old teachers and old schools, I must develop them. The curricula, for example could be completely revamped.