The Egyptian Cram School Conundrum 

How Private Tutoring Became the Primary Mode of Education

The dreaded Thanaweya Amma is a series annual of standardized tests administered to graduating high school students in Egypt. For many, if not most, students this exam is a make or break moment in their lives. It determines what university course one can apply to, and the prospects of attending a dream university can come to a halt due to one bad examination result. Those who are currently undertaking the exams are probably feeling constant state of anxiety and stress, and those who long graduated sometimes have nightmares pertaining to those few weeks of anguish.  

 

THE ONE TEST THAT MAPS OUT YOUR FUTURE

 

The Thanaweya Amma testing system is percentage-based exam. Basically, the percentage is divided into two categories, non-exam assignments and the year-end exam itself. The non-exam section is relatively easy to complete, and most students manage to get all the assignments done weeks before the exam (many just copy off of each other, but that’s a story for another time). The problem here then lies in the actual examination, which can unfairly impact a student’s future for two reasons. First and foremost, the exam holds a higher percentage than the assignments; secondly the exam is a one-off. This means that students only have one chance throughout the entire academic year to pass a subject. While it is true that a student who scores badly on an exam due to their lack of studying would only have themselves to blame, there are other factors that can come into play that would result in a bad score. One of said factors is a lack of access to adequate education and attention from educators; this is especially true for students who attend public schools. 

 

PUBLIC SCHOOLS ABANDONED, CRAM SCHOOLS FLOCKED TO

 

Public schools in Egypt face one huge hurdle: overcrowding. The population in Egypt is a relatively young one; according to Population Council approximately 61 per cent of the population is under the age 30, while 40 per cent of the population is between the ages of 10 and 29. Furthermore, the Egyptian populace is a largely poor, as a 2018 statistic indicates that 32.5 per cent of Egyptians live below the poverty line. While wealthy parents have abandoned public education in favour of private schools a long time ago, this simply isn’t an option for poorer families. As a result, many parents are forced to send their children to public schools that are often overcrowded and underfunded, and most students cannot receive the ample attention from teachers. Speaking of teachers, many educators in the public school system are subjected to low wages. 

 

On one hand, you have students who don’t have access to high quality education, and teachers who are underpaid by their employers. This created a toxic symbiotic relationship that manifested itself in private tutoring. In order to ensure that their children learn the keys towards acing tests, parents send their children to cram schools or hire private tutors, and these private tutors are teachers who are hired by the public education sector. In this way, both parties get what they lack behind school walls, students get the attention they need while teachers get the financial procurement that they lack from their menial wages. 
 




A parent reading the holy Quran during waiting the students exit outside the examination committee during the first day of high school exams in Giza Governorate, Egypt, on June 21, 2020. (Getty)

 

Even though cram schools are not unique to Egypt, the institution has taken a whole entire identity in Egypt. Let’s compare cram school education in Egypt to that of Japan. Like Egypt, Japan has a cultural tradition of cram school education. In Japan, many high school students attend cram schools after school hours and during weekends. Moreover, like Egyptian cram schools, Japanese cram schools are designed to help students pass university exams. However, unlike Egyptian cram schools (called centres in Egypt), Japanese cram schools are designed as supplementary to high schools not a replacement for them. In Egypt, it has become commonplace for high schoolers to skip classes and religiously attend cram school lessons. 

 

Furthermore, in Egyptian cram schools tutors don’t give students a proper education that encourages critical thinking and creative problem solving, rather it teaches children the best methods of cramming as much they can during the smallest time frame. It is also not uncommon for these tutors to give students various “hacks” to help them know what part of the curriculum they should focus on most, and which ones they could glance over once or maybe twice. Take for instance Arabic, in the Egyptian school curriculum Arabic is split into a number of different sections, essays (taabeer) ,novels (kesas), poems (nosos), grammar (nahwo). In 12th grade Egyptian high schools, students study Al Ayam (The Days) by Taha Hussien as their novel section, and taking this as an example many private tutors will tell their students which chapters to focus on and which chapters they can ignore. To be fair, most of these tutors don’t make up these claims as they usually back their “insider knowledge” on which chapters have appeared most on recent test papers and which ones have been set aside. Furthermore, many students will also ask their friends on pointers their tutors have given them and as a result many students will most likely go into the exam having crammed 70 to 80 per cent of the novel rather than 100 per cent of the book. 

 

While the discrepancies between public schools and private schools have highlighted the class differences in Egyptian society, private tutoring has had a similar effect. Most of these private tutors are highly reliant on word of mouth, and once one tutor becomes renowned for helping a multitude of students pass with flying colours, they will soon find themselves receiving many phone calls from parents asking them to take their kids under their wing. The more popular tutors (aka the ones who are known for yielding the best results) are usually the ones who charge more. Since parents are forced to hire a tutor for each subject, then they are forced to make hefty decisions on which tutors they can afford. While public education has meant that lower income households did not need to worry about tuition, the growing necessity for cram schools have made such households adjust their budgets to accommodate private tutoring 

 

 

WHAT ABOUT PRIVATE SCHOOLS?

 

It was once believed that children who go to private schools get the attention that their public school cohorts lack, and therefore did not need to attend private classes. However, this is far from the truth. Take my own personal experience for instance, I was in an international school and I attended its American division section. As the name implies, we took the same curriculum from American high schools and therefore, our grades were dependent on two metrics, the Grade Point Average (GPA) and our SAT exams. Our GPA came from our work in school and was mostly straightforward. However, there was a problem when it came to SAT examinations since it wasn’t included in our own school curriculum (through no fault from our schools since that’s how American high schools operate). As such, many English and math teachers would become private SAT tutors, and private SAT lessons were not cheap. Back in 2012-2013, a private SAT session could cost up 550 Egyptian pounds, naturally given national inflation rates, this price tag has undoubtedly increased. Students who are enrolled in IGCSE schools (the international equivalent of the British GCSE) also attend similar classes in which tutors helped them pass their A-level exams. 

 

A NEW HOPE FOR THE FUTURE?

 

In 2017, Egyptian Education minister Tarek Shawky announced that the ministry would get rid of the Thanaweya Amma standardised test. In its place, a new grade percentage system would be favoured. As such, under this new system a student’s grades over their entire three-year high school career would be taken into consideration, as all final grades will be calculated to form a grade percentage. This is a major contrast to the current system that places a student’s future on a single examination period that takes place during the last days of their high school journey. Furthermore, the minister announced that the rigid split between the sciences and arts pathways would be abandoned, and instead students throughout the these three years would be free to choose the subjects they want to undertake. The ministry said that this new system will be put in place starting from the next academic year of 2020-21. While this might help reduce student test anxiety, it is still unclear if it will improve the quality of education in public school environments. Furthermore, as long as high school is still a critical period in which a student can improve their social standing, then reliance on private tutoring might not subside in the near future.