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Private lessons: symptom of a wider disease

Is eliminating private tuition from the educational process in Egypt really possible?

Parents wait for students to exit after an exam at a secondary school Hassan Ibrahim
Parents wait for students to exit after an exam at a secondary school
Hassan Ibrahim

Crossing the street, the 44-year-old Arabic teacher sunk his head between his jacket collar and he raised his shoulders to meet the night’s cold breeze.  Abdel Nasser had just finished teaching a private lesson to a group of secondary school students at an independent tuition centre. Slowing his pace after crossing an intersection, Abdel said, “all the running around to catch up and cope with life is starting to affect my health now I guess.” His burdened eyes tracked the passing by cars as he said, “I do not know what am I going to do when I turn 60.”

This secondary school teacher does not fear aging in itself, but he fears being unable to cover his basic expenses after retirement. Teaching at a government language school, Abdel Nasser like many other teachers gives private classes to top-up his low monthly salary, and the pension after retirement is low too. Between an insufficient pension and losing energy while aging, resorting to private lessons is a no-brainer.

Private tuition has been a controversial issue for over two decades. Dr Hossam El-Badrawi, an Egyptian physician and politician, is just one of many publically criticising private lessons in Egypt. In fact, several authors, officials and parents have been calling for totally eliminating and penalising the practise in Egypt. In one of his online reports, Badrawi talks of private lessons being a financial burden on families. In addition, private lessons are perceived being detrimental to the formal educational system in Egypt.

The informal activity is associated with both public and private schools in Egypt. But while some perceive private lessons as pure evil, others consider it as a vital element in today’s society. Magdy Mustafa, a Mathematics teacher in a public school said, “everyone looks at private lessons from their own perspective,” and exploring the different perspectives of teachers, students and parents, reveals whether eliminating private classes is a societal need or not.

The income

Medhat Ibrahim, a social studies teacher at a private language school, said that the majority of teacher salaries are not enough to cover family expenses: “If a teacher makes around EGP 2,000 per month then usually they resort to giving private lessons.”  While some teachers do make EGP 2,000, others have a much lower salary. Ibrahim believes that through private classes a teacher can earn more than EGP 5,000 per month.

A special professional body for teachers was introduced under the ousted regime of former President Hosni Mubarak as part of his last election campaign, through which teacher salaries were increased.

“My salary did not exceed EGP 1,000 before the increase,” said Mustafa the math teacher. Mustafa’s monthly salary was EGP 48 when he was first appointed as a teacher in 1984. He said that he had to start giving private classes because the salary was not enough, especially since he wanted to marry. He then travelled to Oman in 1992, and worked as a teacher there for four years. “When I came back, my salary became better, so I decreased the amount of private classes that I used to give.”

Abdel Nasser has been working as a teacher for 22 years, and today his monthly salary is EGP 1,470. His salary without the Mubarak era increase would be around EGP 800 to EGP 900. He acknowledges the increase and tops-up his wage through private lessons, but he’s worried about retirement. “We take the increase only during working, but once we retire it is not factored-in,” said Abdel Nasser.

Working as a schoolteacher for 37 years, a colleague of Abdel Nasser earned EGP 2,600 upon retirement but received a pension of only EGP 900. “Reaching the age of 60, means the probability of becoming sick and increases, and my health will restrict my capacity to give private classes,” Abdel Nasser said, “so when I reach such a stage where I become weak and sick, they give us EGP 900?”

Mustafa also shared a story of one of his retired colleagues who has just undergone heart surgery and has a son in secondary school. “After I hit 60, they decrease my salary from EGP 2,000 to EGP 900?” asked Mustafa, “how can I make up this difference?” He wondered how his friend would cover the expenses of his family and medication with only EGP 900 per month.

Some teachers, like Mustafa, believe that private lessons are just a temporary solution to financial problems. Others think of them as a way to guarantee security after retirement, by saving up.

Mustafa said that teachers conducted a protest last September due to mainly financial stresses. Upon retirement, Mustafa said that he too would protest because he feels teachers should be granted a degree of respect in return their lifetime of hard work. “I told my colleagues that when I reach the retirement age, and my EGP 2,000 salary turns to EGP 900 pension,” he added with a stuttering voice, “I will sit in front of the People’s Assembly and make my hand like this” adopting the posture of a beggar. He said that he will carry a sign that reads, “I am begging for the difference in my salary so I can live.”

Mustafa, like many teachers, feels underappreciated financially and socially. “I am 55 years old, I have been working as a teacher since 1984, and now I make around EGP 2,000 per month, while another person with a diploma, or an office boy, could make more than me per month.”

A group of students standing in front of one of the centres where private lessons are held Adham Roshdy
A group of students standing in front of one of the centres where private lessons are held
Adham Roshdy

Abdel Nasser said, “Ok fine, I will not give private classes and I will get paid EGP 1,400 after 22 years of working,” he continued this hypothetical saying, “I will not marry, or have children, and I will give them [people against private classes] my salary, and let us see how will they supply me with clothes and food, in addition to paying my rent and bills.”

Ethical or unethical?

In response to whether an increase in the teachers’ salaries would eliminate private lessons, Ibrahim asked, “how much increase would that be? Even if the salary is doubled, it would still be less than what a teacher makes per month [privately].” But other approaches have been taken in order to tackle the issue.

Ibrahim believes that the government tried fighting private tuition by redistributing school grades in such a way that coursework marks are given greater importance than the final exam. Course marks include attendance, participation in activities and writing reports throughout the term. “So by collecting marks throughout the term, a student would eventually pass the final written exam,” said Ibrahim.

However, Abdel Nasser said that assigning high marks to course work in an attempt to restrict private classes is a flawed approach, and in fact results in an increase in the rate of private classes: “Course marks give more space for the teacher to control the student, and there are a lot of teachers that could lack conscience, taking advantage of this in order to force the student into taking private classes.”

Mona Magdy, an employee with a multinational in Egypt, took private lessons when she was in secondary school. She saw private classes as a last resort for teachers seeking to compensate for low salaries. When Magdy was a student, she was one of those indirectly forced into taking private lessons. Unscrupulous teachers resorted to any behaviour in order to drive their students into taking private lessons, to top up their own salaries.

Some teachers give outlines of the lesson in the classroom, which is later explained properly during private tuition. Magdy pointed out that students do not usually seek a different private tutor when they do not understand a subject. “This is because the teacher is responsible for the [course marks],” said Magdy. So students fear that the teacher could give them low course marks if they do not take a private class with them.

Not all teachers can be lumped together under the ‘unethical’ umbrella. But Abdel Nasser thinks if a teacher leaves the school in order to give private lessons, then that is unethical. He said “it is surely wrong” if an individual does not teach properly within the class or marks students down so they will take private lessons.

“If I work honestly and sincerely at school, and after school hours I give private classes then I am not doing anything wrong,” said Abdel Nasser. But a teacher cannot justify working badly at school, just because they take low salaries: “As long as a person has agreed to accept a job offer, and is aware of the salary, then the job should be done efficiently,” said Abdel Nasser.

Stressful education

Though teachers commonly give private lessons to ease their financial burden, students’ families face financial burdens too. Wagdy Qodsy, a business owner, said, “private lessons drain the people’s money.” A recent study by Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics estimates 42% of the total amount of money families spent on education goes solely on private tuition. “In order to cope with the expenses of private lessons, some people borrow informal loans,” said Qodsy.

Nagla Abu El-Nasr, a mathematics teacher at a private primary school and a mother of two said parents face a lot of stress, whether psychologically or financially, when their children reach secondary school. “This is because they have to attain high marks [to enter university]” Abu El-Nasr said, “and parents are forced to give their children private lessons.” As a teacher, Abu El-Nasr does not give private lessons, but as a parent, she let her children take private classes in the secondary stage.

Students at a private preparatory school Hassan Ibrahim
Students at a private preparatory school
Hassan Ibrahim

Both Ibrahim and Abu El-Nasr said that enrolling a child to an international school usually saves the parents the hassle of private tuition. They believe that international schools have highly qualified teachers and adopt a better educational system. But not all parents can afford the fees, so they enroll their children at affordable schools, and compensate for the lack of good teaching through private classes.

Lack of efficiency

In fact, not only teachers seek private lessons, but there is a societal need. Dr Mohamed Nawar, professor of sociology at Cairo University, discusses the relationship between private lessons and the efficiency of the educational process. “Private lessons are an activity created by the society to satisfy an existing need,” said Nawar. A need has emerged due to the lack of efficiency in the educational process at formal educational institutions. The difference between the quality of teaching and the standards expected of students has created a gap. The informal organisation of private tuition was established in order to fill the gap.

Crowded classrooms and unqualified teachers are a major problem. Abu El-Nasr said that crowded classrooms make it difficult to teach, and of course for students to learn. A UNDP report, based on the Egypt Human Development Report of 2005, said that 40% of schools exceed 40 children per classroom. The report also said that classes can exceed more than 70 students per class. Unsurprisingly, the Egypt Human Development Report of 2010 reads “the overcrowding of students and the shortage of qualified teachers has affected the quality of learning experiences.”

What is more, not all students in the same class are at the same level of ability, said Professor Nawar. This is one of the challenges facing teachers. If they do not take account of individual differences, the more able children are overlooked and private tuition enters the picture again.

Khaled Mansour was one of many students who took private lessons when he was at secondary school. “The problem is that the teachers in school are not that good so we have to take private lessons,” he said.

The issue of unqualified teachers came across to Ali El-Sabbagh, an English teacher at a private primary school, as he interviewed language graduates applying for an English teaching job at his school. El-Sabbagh said, “I’m not exaggerating, their level [in English] cannot be differentiated from a student studying in the third grade at a primary school.” His frustration rose as he said that such examples could be found in other subjects. El-Sabbagh said that his school does not accept such poor standards, “but cheap schools could accept those kinds [of graduates].”

Private lessons are necessary, whether from a student’s or a teacher’s perspective. “The student needs a form of corrective action that compensates for the inefficiency of the educational process,” Dr Nawar said, “and the teacher sees private lessons as an opportunity for more income. Eliminating this in a functional manner, should be accompanied by increasing the efficiency of the educational process of schools.”

Teachers protest in September 2012 against low wages and the rising cost of living Hassan Ibrahim
Teachers protest in September 2012 against low wages and the rising cost of living
Hassan Ibrahim

Such development could only be effective under a long-term plan. The professor is not against private lessons even under an improved educational system. This is because these forms of classes often cover the needs of students that lag behind. He said that private tuition should be effectively organised through the Ministry of Education and subjected to the state’s supervision; in a manner that satisfies everyone.


Remedial ‘catch up’ classes have long been the policy of the Ministry of Education, but this has been lately frustrating teachers. According to Mustafa, the public school teacher, such classes cost the students EGP 16 per class.  He said that the Ministry of Education used to collect EGP 4 and the teacher took the rest. “This year the ministry told us that they will collect 45% from the money we make per class,” said Mustafa. “If they collect 45%, then why would we give remedial classes?” he said, “we would be better off giving private classes.”

Mustafa acknowledged that remedial classes were in theory a good idea, and could save him from jumping around from one house to the other. “But when they tell us that they will collect more money, they push us towards quitting remedial classes and seeking private classes,” he said. Many teachers cancelled the school’s remedial classes, and they taught the students in private centres instead.

“Private centres have taken the role of the ideal school,” said El-Sabbagh, and many teachers agree, as the centres provide better opportunities for both the teacher and the student.

 “Any kind of work needs supportive elements for it to succeed,” said Abdel Nasser. When support is absent the work itself has to be transferred to another area so that it can be successful and beneficial. Teachers do give private lessons for financial reasons, but aging deteriorates their ability to cope. And private lessons are not just a last resort to improve a teacher’s income, but it is a need that society demands. Though many parents may perceive private tuition as a widespread disease, El-Sabbagh said, “I see private lessons as the symptom of a disease.”

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