Egypt has embarked on ambitious accountability reforms in the education sector using modern technology, according to a newly released report from the World Bank Groupe (WBG) entitled “expectations and inspirations: A New Framework for Education in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)”.
Egypt’s educational reforms are enhancing accountability through main three channels, the first of which is increasing the amount of data and information available to policy makers and the public, thereby improving accountability for resource allocation and service delivery.
The second main channel for Egypt’s improvement of accountability is enhancing transparency around student assessments and citizens’ trust of appraisal results while the third channel is strengthening accountability across key stakeholders, thereby giving the community and parents a greater voice in policy making, noted the report.
The report mentioned that Egypt is creating a better compact between the ministry of education, technical education and schools, through improving district-level management, adding that students are also responsible for their learning as they must not be simply passive recipients.
“With their growing access to social media, students have access to massive amounts of learning resources. In many instances, they may have more access to information than their parents on global skills and knowledge, and can demand these skills from the education system,” elaborated the report.
Students can also organise themselves to support their schools and hold service providers and educators to account, added the report.
For her part, Safaa El Tayeb, education practice manager for the MENA region at the WBG, praised Egypt’s courageous educational reforms which came in line with some political shifts since the Arab spring.
“There are still a lot of changes in many of the countries as well as in the world. the report provides an analysis of the challenges that face education in MENA, with the aim of providing the countries with a new framework for turning the MENA’s hopes in to reality.”
The government of Egypt has effectively leveraged modern technology to promote accountability, asserted the report, adding that as for civil society, it is responsible for demanding transparent communication of educational inputs and outcomes.
In the past few years, the MENA region witnessed many conflicts, economic challenges, as well as a great deal of technological disruptions, remarked El Tayeb.
Recently, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has also been using the media and conferences to build support for educational reforms, noted the report, adding that Al-Sisi has been advocating and supporting major reforms to uphaul the education system, shifting from the traditional rote learning, high-stakes examination system which upholds credentials towards a modern system which focuses more on learning and skill development.
Al-Sisi held several youth and education conferences to rally public support around the reforms, reassuring parents and students of the benefits of these reforms both for them individually and for society and the economy as a whole, said the report, noting that Al-Sisi announced that 2019 would be the year of education.
Teachers in Egypt and Tunisia were within the range of top-performing countries such as Japan, New Zealand, and Korea while others such as Jordan, Djibouti, Yemen, the West Bank and Gaza were all well below the threshold of 1,200 working hours a year for teachers in primary education, mentioned the report.
In Lebanon, the working hours required of primary and secondary education teachers were less than half of those observed in top-performing countries, noted the report.
Some MENA countries have addressed the dual language challenge by designing curricular materials and providing additional support in the early grades, said the report, explaining, “For example, a programme introduced by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Ministry of Education in Egypt showed promise and is being scaled up.”
The USAID’s programme in Egypt included eight days of teacher training, in addition to curriculum inputs while second-grade students who received six months of intervention improved their performance by an entire grade level.
Large enrolment gaps exist in MENA
In Egypt, 53% of students resort to private tutoring, and a further 10% join paid study groups, said the report, adding that even in the primary classes, year-end school examinations affect opportunities for children to progress through classes, which can negatively influence teaching practices.
Access to early childhood education in MENA is highly unequal within countries, noted the report, explaining that in Djibouti and Egypt a child from the wealthiest quintile of households is six times more likely to attend an early childhood care and education (ECCE) programme as a child from the poorest quintile.
“In Iraq, Libya, and Tunisia, children from the wealthiest quintile are 17 times as likely to attend an ECCE programme as children from the poorest quintile,” elaborated the report, asserting that large enrolment gaps exist in MENA, particularly between the richest and the poorest children.
Additionally, the report said that MENA has produced many great leaders whose charisma and vision have led to remarkable progress. For example, Egyptian educator Taha Hussein, who became blind as a young child, went on to become one of the preeminent thinkers of his time, leaving his mark on an entire nation.
Serving as minister of education in the early 1950s, Hussein worked to massively expand public education and abolish school fees, said the report, noting that considering education essential to human existence, Hussein infamously said, “Education is like water and air”.
Control and autonomy
The tension between control and autonomy is usually associated with the debate on decentralisation of services and the balance of power between central ministries, regional offices, and schools, indicated the report, adding that the goal of decentralisation is typically to improve governance by fostering autonomy, accountability, and responsiveness to local conditions and needs.
“Over the last few decades, several MENA countries experimented with some aspects of decentralisation, deconcentrating, and devolution of authority from the central to the regional and school levels,” explained the report.
MENA’s education systems remain highly centralised, said the report, adding, “the success of attempted decentralisation has varied. In some instances, the decision-making power was authorised but was not supported by the resources needed to implement decisions. For example, decentralisation in Egypt in between 2002 and 2007 was not supported by sufficient financial resources.”
In Egypt, vocational schools lack the appropriate facilities and hands-on learning opportunities, declared the report, noting that vocational education works best when schools collaborate with employers.
Vocational education has also failed to appropriately adapt to the available jobs, and it may be too rigid in its structure, failing to provide students with a broad enough foundation for employment, asserted the report.
Earlier in November, Egypt’s Minister of Education, Tarek Shawky, said that his ministry will implement new reforms for vocational education during 2019, adding that future reforms will be massive and aim tp support the Egyptian economy.
Online platforms in MENA
Many online platforms in MENA are providing Arabic learning content, said the report, noting that some of the English language content from Khan Academy and others has been translated into Arabic.
“MENA-based content providers such as Nafham have followed the Khan Academy format with original content that uses curricula from several countries in the region, along with crowdsourcing to upload lessons,” mentioned the report, adding that other organisations such as Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, Talal Abu-Ghazaleh International University in Lebanon, and the Education Media Company in Morocco, have created digital content in different languages.
Digital textbooks are interactive and allow unique learning experiences for students, affirmed the report, noting that there are some countries in MENA which use mobile apps that provide online interactive libraries, such as Rawy Kids in Egypt or the Kitabi Book Reader in Lebanon.
There are also some countries that use entertainment and games to encourage learning, such as Sho’lah and Loujee, a ‘smart’ Arabic toy aimed at interactive learning-through-play, stated the report, noting that recently, two smartphone app-based games were shown to improve early school reading in conflict-ridden Syria, revealing positive learning results on initial impact evaluations, and won awards at the 2017 EduApp4Syria competition.
The report announced that media platforms play an important role in holding stakeholders accountable and in explaining complex issues, adding that social media are a growing major source of information in the world and in MENA countries, especially for youth, and they can serve as a platform for policy makers wishing to share information and promote greater transparency on education policy reforms.
Social media also provides citizens with a mechanism to hold policy makers and educators accountable, said the report, adding, “yet social media can also be exploited by interest groups to block important reforms and spread misinformation.”
In MENA countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait, opponents of education reforms have launched strong social media campaigns against those reforms, expressed the report, adding that open channels for communication and debate are important for creating a pact around learning.
Policy-makers should engage with stakeholders through various channels to address concerns, correct information using evidence, and rally collective support for education reforms, stressed the report.
Beyond social media, technology can also be leveraged to establish accountability systems, mentioned the report, adding that several countries are implementing education dashboards to facilitate open data and a move toward evidence-based policy making.
MENA countries allocate more to education than many wealthy countries
“For decades, MENA countries have spent substantial shares of their income on education to meet the demand of growing populations over the last half-century,” disclosed the report, adding that in fact, most MENA countries allocate far more to education than many wealthy countries.
For example, Tunisia spends 20.6% of its national budget on education, which is nearly twice the OECD country average of 11.3%, explained the report, adding that although the share of spending on education in MENA is relatively high, it has been declining since its peak at the turn of the century, from a median level of 20.6% in 2000, which is 5.9% of the GDP, to 13% in 2016, which is 4% of GDP.
Education budgets on staff salaries are often over 90% of all recurrent education spending, imparted the report, adding, “countries crowd out investment in other important inputs that contribute to learning, such as teaching and learning materials, professional development, and school rehabilitation and maintenance.”
Countries everywhere are facing trade-offs when deciding whether to spend scarce resources on hiring additional teachers or financing other educational inputs, said the report, adding that investing in the professional development, working conditions, and salaries of current and future teachers often proves to be more effective for increasing student learning than employing more teachers.
The same is true for greater investment in technology or the use of teaching assistants in the classroom, added the report, noting that investments in hiring additional teachers to reduce class sizes may have an impact on learning, but teachers should be targeted in areas where class sizes are particularly large and act as a constraint on learning.
Sufficient investment in early childhood education and in the early years of schooling is also needed to ensure that students build foundational skills which enable them to learn effectively in the later stages of education, added the report.
Countries in the MENA region have invested heavily in education for decades but have not been able to reap the benefits, said the report, adding that education can play a vital role in building human capital and contribute to economic growth, and is a means for young people to meet their aspirations.
Yet all MENA countries, regardless of their geography, demography, economy, or society, have not been able to fully reap the personal, social, and economic benefits of education, maintained the report, adding, “This has contributed to one the world’s highest youth unemployment rates, with rates especially high for educated youth. The frustrated aspirations of this population have been a source of turbulence in the recent past and could pose risks for the region’s future.”
The current situation in MENA requires a renewed focus on education, not just as a national priority for economic growth and social development but as a national emergency for stability, peace, and prosperity, concluded the report.