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Problems Facing Primary and Secondary Education in Egypt

Egypt has one of the most developed educational systems in the Middle East and North Africa region. However, the outcomes the system produces are far from ideal. Although education is compulsory between the ages of 12 and 17, less than 50 percent of 17-year-olds attend a secondary school. Nearly 13 million people aged 15 or older in Egypt are illiterate, and only about 69 percent of students attending primary school are in the appropriate grade for their age. The two factors primarily responsible for these outcomes are a lack of government spending on education and widespread gender-based discrimination. Several organizations, including USAID and UNICEF, are currently working to improve education in Egypt.

Although Egypt has a GDP of nearly $250 billion, the Egyptian government only spends $9.5 billion on education annually. Egypt is ranked 115th in the world for percentage of GDP spent on education. The lack of expenditure on education has led to a deterioration of school infrastructure and poor teaching quality. Around one in five school buildings in Egypt are unfit for use, lacking functioning water and sanitation facilities. Many primary and secondary school teachers in Egypt are poorly trained, and teachers often use corporal punishment in their classes. According to the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), more than half of the students in Egypt do not meet the low benchmark in international learning assessments.

Gender-based discrimination negatively impacts the educational attainment of Egyptian girls. While the literacy rate for boys is 86.5 percent, the literacy rate for girls is only 75 percent. The number of illiterate women in Egypt is almost twice the number of illiterate men. The disparity in educational attainment between boy and girls is largely brought about by local attitudes towards girls’ education. While 86 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 24 in urban areas can read, only about 72 percent of women in the same age group living in rural areas can read. Improved female educational attainment could help resolve some of Egypt’s socioeconomic issues. Infant mortality rates and population growth rates would likely decrease.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is the agency of the United States government responsible for administering civilian foreign aid. USAID has several projects in Egypt aimed at improving educational attainment and literacy rates. The organization’s Literate Village project is a four-year activity that aims to eradicate illiteracy in about 2,000 rural villages. The project targets communities with large numbers of out of school children and has received about $17 million in funding. USAID is also conducting the Early Grade Learning and Remedial Reading project. Studies conducted in Egypt have shown that strong early childhood education greatly improves the odds that a child will complete primary and secondary school. The Early Grade Learning and Remedial Reading project targets early grade learning and seeks to ensure that Egyptian students can learn essential reading, writing, and mathematics skills. The project aims to reach over 150,000 teachers and 7.2 million children and has received about $15 million in funding.

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) is an intergovernmental organization that seeks to address the needs of women and children in developing countries. UNICEF provides support and funding to Egypt’s Ministry of Education, the government agency responsible for the provision of teacher salaries, textbooks, and school sanitation. UNICEF has many programs in Egypt, such as the Learning Improvement For Everyone (LIFE) program, that provide training for teachers, learning materials, and teacher evaluation systems. Many of UNICEF’s activities have a specific focus on ensuring equal educational access to girls.    

Egypt’s undesirable educational outcomes are primarily brought about by gender-based discrimination and a lack of government expenditure on education. There are twice as many illiterate women as illiterate men living in Egypt. As a result of a lack of funding, school infrastructure and teaching quality have deteriorated. Several international organizations have programs aimed at improving education in Egypt. USAID has programs that seek to enhance early grade education and eliminate illiteracy. UNICEF has programs that seek improve the overall quality of teaching and eliminate gender-based discrimination.