Around 18 million students in Egypt began a new academic year this week amid divisions among educators about whether or not to join strikes calling for improved working conditions.
Thousands of teachers from several provinces took part in the strikes initiated by the country's independent teachers' union on Saturday (September 15th), demanding pay raises, improved conditions for teachers and administrative staff, reconsidering teaching tenures and hiring graduates from the faculty of education.
Egypt's Education Ministry said it will meet these demands wherever possible and work to remove obstacles that may stand in the way of the development process, because of the urgent need to develop the country's educational infrastructure and renovate or expand schools to accommodate the large and growing number of students.
"The ministry is interested in improving teachers' conditions, as they are one of the pillars of the educational process," said Education Minister Dr. Ibrahim Ghoneim.
On Monday, Ghoneim announced that 130,000 teachers and 60,000 administrative staff throughout the country have been given tenure, with an additional 60,000 educators soon to follow.
Rashad Abdel Sater, a science teacher at a public school, said teachers are divided when it comes to demands and taking part in the strike.
"The teachers participating in the strike are members of the independent teachers' union and are demanding the dismissal of the current education minister, Dr. Ibrahim Ghoneim," he said. "[They also want the ministry] to grant tenure to contractors, give [tenured teachers] a 200% bonus, set the minimum wage for teachers at 3,000 Egyptian pounds ($492) and penalise private lessons."
Meanwhile, teachers who are not joining the strike are convinced that the country's current conditions require accepting the offer made by the Education Ministry, which is "a 100% bonus for teaching staff, to be paid in two instalments on top of their [regular] salaries, the first in January and the second in October", Abdel Sater said.
"This will raise salaries to approximately 1,500 Egyptian pounds ($246), which is reasonable, especially since the ministry promised to continue to communicate with teachers to meet all their demands," he added.
According to Abdel Sater, all teachers, whether they are joining the strike or not, agree there is a need to restructure the teaching staff in the country and to undertake a comprehensive amendment of curricula in its schools.
With new scientific curricula, Egypt could weed out private lessons, a phenomenon that families can no longer afford, he said.
According to figures released by the Egyptian Education Ministry, nearly 18 million students of all educational levels are enrolled in the country's 47,000 public schools and require more than 150 million textbooks.
To help keep pace with these demands, officials promoted 600,000 teachers, gave 20,000 specialists training in the International Computer Driving License (ICDL) programme, trained 20,000 teachers on the Intel Teach to the Future programme, helped 10,000 teachers train with Microsoft programmes and approved a contract to purchase 30,000 computers.
"[Recently], the ministry issued a number of instructions and measures, in particular regarding lifting the obligations on families to pay for school renovations or buy necessities," Hassan Mnawwar, a public school principal in Cairo, told Al-Shorfa. "This is a way to ease the burden on Egyptian families."
Mnawwar said most schools require renovations and expansions in order to alleviate overcrowded classrooms. At his school -- in order to absorb the large number of students -- he was forced to put as many as 110 primary school students in a single classroom.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ghandour, a father of two primary school students at a private school, said he hopes a curriculum development plan is implemented so he can enrol his children in public schools once more and avoid having to pay high school fees.
"I was forced to enrol my son in a private school due to the low standards at public schools where no serious learning is taking place," he told Al-Shorfa. "Despite the high tuition fees at private schools, in the end, I will reap the benefits in the future through my son's high educational level."
Tuition fees for private schools reach up to 6,000 Egyptian pounds ($985) in addition to other expenses such as school uniforms, books, stationary and transportation making the total sum for each child around 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,641), according to Ghandour.
"Education in public schools is virtually free of charge and it makes no sense not to take advantage of that," he said.