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Egypt’s Mountain To Climb

Matt Salusbury on the immense challenges faced by state-sector ELT

The current state of English teaching in Egypt is shockingly poor, but there’s considerable enthusiasm nationally for the language.

This offers hope that Egyptian ELT can eventually be improved. That was the message from the presentation of the British Council’sEnglish Language Teaching and learning in Egypt: an Insight report. In March the Gazette attended the report’s London launch.

Dr Ahmed Hashish, undersecretary at the Ministry of Education, speaking in Arabic via a translator, said that English is ‘the first foreign language in Egypt and the second language after the mother tongue Arabic’. English is taught from primary school all the way up to university entrance, and in ‘language schools [bilingual schools] maths and science are taught in English’. Dr Hashish added, ‘The most important challenge that we face is the English language. English teachers are in need of speaking and writing skills’ in English, while ‘there is a shortage of teachers to teach the English language in some provinces of Egypt’.

Educational consultant Hamish McIlwraith, co-author with Alistair Fortune of the report, talked to Ministry of Education people, officials at the National Centre for Examinations and Evaluation, Ain Shams University, some of the Al Azhar Institutes (see the February 2016Gazette, page 13), university and schools inspectors, trainers and primary school teacher trainees in a British Council CiPELT course, the Centre for Educational Leadership, and to employers and parents about their attitudes to English. The Ministry of Education also distributed surveys to public schools for the report. The focus of the report was on quality, standards and ‘re-establishing public trust’.

Some figures give an idea of the scale of the task. Egypt is a ‘young country’, with most of the population under twenty. According to Jonathan Gayther, director of the British Council Egypt, one in four of all Arabs is Egyptian, and the country’s population is expected soon to reach 140 million. The city of Cairo’s population is between 14 and 20 million, depending on who you ask.

Dr Hashish said, ‘We have about two million teachers.’ Youth unemployment is now at 35.7 per cent, higher even than Palestine. There are 200,000 head teachers and inspectors that reformers will need to get on board. The 30,000 trained in CiPELT (the British Council’s Certificate in Primary English Language Teaching) are tiny compared to the school body. The population pressure on Egypt means that the ‘actual physical size of classrooms’ is becoming an issue.

So numerous are the challenges facing ELT it’s hard to see where to begin efforts for its improvement. The report’s most important recommendation is that ‘teachers need to be more valued with salaries improved as an immediate priority. Teachers also need considerable help in improving their English language proficiency.’

At one university teacher training department McIlwraith found ‘inappropriate teacher qualifications’ and not enough actual training, with an absence of teaching practice. BA English graduates can teach all levels, while those taking a BEd in English only start looking at the curriculum in their third year, and in their two-week placement they often do little more than observe classes.

Feedback from the trainees of a British Council-run CipELT course included, ‘This is first time I’ve been given something to study on my own.’ Learner autonomy out in the provinces is new, says McIlwraith.

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McIlwraith Education 

The Ministry of Education textbook seriesHello!has ‘noble ambitions … working in groups, critical discussion’, but these don’t get much of a look-in when you have a poorly paid teacher with a low level of English teaching a class of up to 100 – ‘not uncommon in some of Egypt’s poorer districts’. Listening and speaking get four minutes each in the average school English lesson in Egypt, and student-to-student interaction is rare.

English language knowledge for maths and science teacher trainees is still voluntary, and some maths and science teachers and their students don’t even know the English word ‘square’. Some of the British Council’s efforts are in training maths and science teachers to teach in English.

Then there are the exams at three stages of the learner’s school career, culminating in the ‘life-defining exam’ that is the school leaving certificate – in which you’ll need a score of over 98 per cent to get into medical school, for example. There’s a lot of rote learning and teaching to exams as a consequence, with heated debates in the newspapers and on television about what’s happening in the national exams.

The inadequacies of Egypt’s public education have led to dependence on a booming ‘de facto parallel education system’ in the private sector. With ‘little public trust in state-provided education … parents put their faith in private tutoring’, says the report, and ‘families spend some $2 billion on private tuition per year’ – equal to a quarter of the total state education budget. The report adds that families are ‘pressured and intimidated by poorly paid teachers to enrol their children in private tutoring’. In some cases teachers will withhold material from lessons so they can teach it to children in their paid-for after-hours private tutoring instead.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s public-sector universities are ‘struggling even to deliver the basics’.

The immense size of Egypt’s tertiary education student body means that technology and ‘blended learning solutions’ will have to play some part in bringing about improvements, although McIlwraith notes that ‘a range of solutions is needed’. The ‘Understanding Ielts’ free online course delivered by the Open University’s FutureLearn arm recently ‘went viral’ in Egypt, for example. One of the Egyptian EFL teachers present at the launch noted that it’s ‘very important we have courses for free’, as teachers’ salaries ‘don’t allow us to pay for very expensive courses’.

McIlwraith predicts Egypt will need ‘seven to nine years’ of ELT reform. But whatever the immense practical challenges, ‘engagement of Egyptians with the British Council, the UK and English is higher than average in Egypt’ compared to the rest of the Middle East and north Africa (Mena) region, according to survey reports. English courses have a big uptake. Egyptians are ‘really up for education reform’, says Eric Lawrie, regional English director for British Council Mena. The need for improvement in ELT is ‘absolutely understood – they are more keen than anybody to be able to deal with this’.