As students returned to classrooms this week throughout Egypt, there's one back-to-school essential parents insist on: private tutors.
Many say sending their children to school without having arranged for a tutor is akin to not outfitting them with notebooks or shoes. And it's not cheap. The country's Al-Ahram newspaper reported last month that Egyptians spend about $2.4 billion annually tutoring.
But what has become essentially a shadow educational system – one that parents deem necessary for students to get ahead, and teachers say is needed to supplement low pay – is also illegal.
Egyptian law prohibits the practice, as teachers typically don't pay taxes on their extra income and many see the practice as undermining the nation's educational system. But the law goes largely unenforced.
Several months before school began, Mahmoud Shouaib, a high school English teacher in the rural Egyptian town of Shebin El Kom, returned home to find five phone messages from parents – all wanting to hire him post-haste for the upcoming school year.
Six nights a week, Mr. Shouaib goes from home to home tutoring individuals and groups of three to eight. It's tiring work but well worth the toil, he says: tutoring has nearly tripled his monthly salary of 486 Egyptian pounds. Tutors in Cairo and Alexandria reap even larger sums, some making seven times their salary.
But as the use of private tutors has grown throughout the region to make up for substandard schools, what sets Egypt apart, experts say, is that poor families are almost as likely as the rich to enlist tutors. But because the fees pose a much greater burden to the poor, critics charge that tutoring has widened the rift between Egypt's classes. And those who do without tutors lose an academic edge.
Many parents say that school no longer fulfills students' educational needs, with the key to academic success resting on a good tutor.
It's a vicious cycle, says Noha Hussein, whose 12-year-old daughter – a private school student – has been tutored since the third grade. "There's no teaching in schools," Ms. Hussein says. "The school assumes that the student is relying on outside tutoring, so the teacher himself says, 'Why teach?' "
A large-scale initiative, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is under way to support Egyptian educational reforms. But Mark Ginsburg, senior technical adviser with Egypt's Educational Reform Program, says none of the changes tackles tutoring directly.
"There are some serious problems with the current education system," he says. "I think tutoring is, in part, a symptom of those problems. It's also a symptom of less-than-adequate compensation for teachers."
Mr. Ginsburg says tutoring has its benefits for teachers, the income boost and businesslike competition foremost among them. Many teachers see tutoring as a way to even the score financially, as they are among the lowest paid degree-holding government employees.
Still, Mark Bray, director of UNESCO's International Institute for Educational Planning, says tutoring can be consuming. "It can get out of hand and it can destroy children's' lives," he says. "It can gobble up family incomes. It can make life just a constant rat race."
Experts estimate that private tutoring in Egypt consumes at least 20 percent of total household expenditures. Most parents resent having to shell out extra cash for lessons their children ought to learn in school.
But parents bent on their children earning a slot at medical or engineering colleges, often fuel the demand for tutoring. Yousry, an Alexandria high school teacher and tutor who wished to be identified only by his first name, says that, to many families, tutoring is like using steroids. "When I'm a student in this race, I have to take drugs," Yousry says, "something extra."
Students aren't the only ones facing pressure, Yousry says. "Now, if the student performs poorly, they say 'Get a new tutor.' "
The father of three, Yousry's day job earns him 500 Egyptian pounds a month. But by tutoring six nights a week from 6 p.m. to midnight, he makes an extra 3,000 pounds a month.
On average, teachers earn about 10 Egyptian pounds – or $2 per day. "So when a teacher tutors and finds his money increasing, is he going to say no? Of course not," Yousry says.
Nonetheless, it's important to keep things in perspective, says Shouaib, a father of four. "I know a teacher who says he doesn't see his kids except on Fridays for dinner. He starts his day at 5:30 a.m. and then tutors until 1 a.m.," he says.
More troublesome is the practice of some teachers who intentionally abridge lessons during the day to force students to seek private tutoring. "Teachers say 'I'll teach you half the lesson now, and if you want the other half, come to my house at 5 o'clock,'" Bray says. Teachers set the price and sometimes promote students based on who agrees to be tutored.
"That's very pernicious stuff," Bray says, "and parents are not in a position to do much about it because the cost of repeating a class is more than the cost of the kid getting tutoring."
Now, Magda Abu Zaid, a school office worker in Alexandria, says many teachers no longer feel a sense of obligation to their students. "Some of the teachers have a conscience, but only a small percentage," Abu Zaid says, who for three years set aside a portion of her income to be able to pay for her daughter's high school tutors. "It's a burden for the family financially," she says.