In Cairo, Egypt's center of gravity for centuries, the marble halls of the Ministry of Education echo with the footsteps of important visiting entourages.
But the mundane also finds its way into this imposing edifice. In one regal office, with Oriental rugs and tall arched windows, a school principal pours out his woes. A student has been spitting on his classmates, and the boy's mother has refused to stop his misbehaving – instead harassing the school. Could the ministry help?
With 46,000 schools, 1.3 million teachers, and 18 million young people of school age in Egypt, the ministry can hardly afford to deal with such petty issues. But after millenniums of living under strong rulers, from King Tut to former President Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptians instinctively look to a central authority to solve problems.
That inertia represents a key challenge as Egypt transitions to a more democratic society in which individuals are given greater freedom – and responsibility.
"People at the local level are not capable [of making decisions] because they haven't done that for 7,000 years," says former Deputy Education Minister Reda Abou Serie, who met resistance in trying to decentralize education spending before stepping down last year. "You need to change the culture itself of the people."
With Egypt's government strapped for cash and at times paralyzed by political upheaval, however, sweeping change to the education system is more of a long-term vision than imminent reality.
So rather than wait for Cairo, some reformers are finding innovative ways to work at the margins, chipping away at problems instead of drastically overhauling them. The revolution going on outside the classroom door is percolating inside as well, with students learning to think for themselves and teachers demanding more say.
"It's a very interesting development – a form of democratization in the way the education system is crafted," says Farida Makar of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Much is at stake: If schools continue to churn out mediocre graduates, the high youth unemployment will most likely worsen. An improved education system, on the other hand, holds out the promise of producing citizens who can build a prosperous democracy at the heart of the Arab world.
"We're sure that this is an important period in Egypt's history," says Mohammed Srogy, a new public relations adviser at the Ministry of Education. "We believe that education is the gateway for the renaissance of Egypt."
Bottom of the class
Egypt sits at the bottom of world education rankings, and it has little ability in the short term to spend its way to better results.
According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2012-13, Egypt ranked 139th out of 144 countries in the quality of its educational system and 129th in staff training.
Of the 15 countries considered to be in the same development stage as Egypt, only Libya ranked lower for the educational system's quality. Mongolia and Honduras were a few spots ahead at Nos. 136 and 135, respectively.
The Ministry of Education has a budget of £50 billion (Egyptian; US$7.8 billion) to educate some 18 million students, according to Nesr Eldin Shahad, an education professor at Helwan University on the outskirts of Cairo and an adviser to the education committee of the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Some 85 percent of that goes to salaries – the education sector is the largest government employer in Egypt – leaving only a fraction of the funds available for other student needs.
According to Mr. Abou Serie, the budget needs to at least double to deal with all the problems facing the system.
Even just focusing on what Mr. Shahad views as the most critical problem – bringing class sizes down from as large as 100 students to under 40 – will require somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 new schools, as well as more teachers to staff them, at a cost of more than £10 billion ($1.6 billion) by Shahad's estimate.
But Egypt's economic growth has ground to a halt amid the postrevolution turmoil, and the new government has not yet attracted much foreign investment.
Money diverted to tutoring
There is a big outside pot of money in play, however, worth half the ministry's overall budget. Disillusioned parents have essentially created a parallel educational system by engaging tutors to improve students' test scores.
In a scene no doubt replicated all across Egypt, high school girls pour into the Arabic tutoring center of Ahmed Mohamed Ali Abd al-Moaty in Alexandria on a recent evening. He grabs a fistful of markers, dons a headset, and strides into the fluorescent-lit classroom. The rowdy din ceases instantly, replaced by the whisper of pencils.
Mr. Moaty is a one-man show. No PowerPoint. No pictures. He queries the class of roughly 70 girls via microphone; they respond with a collective rumble.
There is no goofing around; Arabic is one of the key subjects these seniors will face on their all-important exams at the end of the year.
Weekly Arabic lessons cost £140 ($39) per month, but many students take other tutorials as well. Nada Aiman says her parents pay £700 ($115) per month for tutorials in history, economics, English, and Arabic, on top of the £12,000 ($1,945) in annual tuition for private school.
The numbers suggest no lack of respect for education, but a lack of faith in the state's ability to provide it. Middle- and upper-class families devote as much as 50 percent of their incomes to private tutoring. That represents a huge pool of cash – and arguably talent – that could boost the public school system, since teachers' attention and energies are often diverted by tutoring, which provides a badly needed supplement to their incomes.
"If you teach the students in the morning, and you are giving him the private class with the same subject and everything, what is the root cause of the problem?" asks Amr El-Meky of the Al Nour party. "The root cause of the problem is that he has a salary issue, and either he is forcing students to buy the class or he has the quality that he is not giving in the main class."
A push for privatization
Professor Seif-Eddeen Fateen knew Egypt's education system was in crisis when he saw a billboard outside Cairo advertising two jobs: teachers and trash collectors. The salary for trash collectors was higher.
A public school teacher with 10 years' experience earns only about £1,500 ($245) per month. While that's double what it was three years ago, it's still hard to survive on. Teachers just beginning their careers make less than £1,000 a month, including bonuses – in a country where the monthly minimum wage is £600.
The FJP, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, has applied the Brotherhood's free-market-solutions philosophy to education, proposing to increase the number of private, for-profit schools.
"[Profit] is a good incentive to deliver better education and compete with other schools for students," says Mr. Fateen, who has advised the FJP on education reform.
Another potential solution is introducing more experimental schools. Technically they are public schools, but parents pay fees of £500 to £600 per year.
Abou Serie says that at these schools teachers are more motivated and better paid, and that children get a better education, eliminating the need for private tutoring.
But the experimental model is criticized as difficult to reproduce on a large scale. Motaz Atallah, an education rights specialist with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in Cairo, calls such schools "sterile pockets of excellence." And devoting government resources to these schools angers many Egyptians, since the right to a free education is enshrined in Egypt's Constitution.
Mr. Atallah says success remains possible only for those who have the inherent smarts and family support to "nimbly climb up the ladder" on their own. The vast majority of students and teachers remain confined within Egypt's dilapidated education system, which even its critics say must eventually be reformed rather than discarded for a new model.
"Our money is stuck in this big machine," Atallah says. "People's children are stuck in this machine. There is no picking a different fight – that is the fight."
Critical thinkers needed
The national curriculum has been slow to change since Mr. Mubarak was ousted in 2011. Minor revisions include a first-grade textbook with a story about the "revolution of the birds," who chase out a cruel king; the civics curriculum has also changed for the first time in decades, says Khaled Aly, a civics teacher at Riada Language School in Alexandria.
The newly revised curriculum doesn't emphasize critical thinking or problem solving, he says, though it does help increase students' knowledge by, for example, teaching them about constitutions around the world.
But while he dreams of the freedom to choose the books his students will read, he says the most important thing is how any given curriculum is taught. "The problem is not ... books, it is not syllabi, it is the way we think."
There are signs that students are embracing the democratic zeitgeist by expressing their own ideas more freely.
Bassant Ahmed, a high-schooler who wants to study engineering, describes how her teacher at Al Redwan Islamic School in Nasr City asked the students recently to write about a great person, preferably a Muslim.
"I said, 'You don't have to be a Muslim to be great,' " she says. "I said I wanted to write about Helen Keller, even though she is not Arab or Muslim, and the teacher said OK."
Teachers are also departing from an authoritarian model to encourage tolerance of varying opinions.
"This is one of the main pillars of democracy – accepting another opinion," says Moaty, the Arabic tutor. His students call him a Mubarak loyalist, but he makes a point by letting them hang Salafi Islamist propaganda on the walls of his tutoring center.
Teaching by example
If students learn by example, then the ongoing tumult on Egypt's streets may provide an important lesson in civics.
Teachers have staged two strikes, one in 2011 and one at the end of last summer. The first demanded better salaries; the second went further, demanding that teachers have a say in the drafting of education laws in the new Constitution and in the national curriculum.
The pressure paid off in legislation raising teacher salaries, but many teachers rejected the bill as only a surface fix.
Among their grievances, according to Makar, were a provision criminalizing private lessons and a failure to address the minimum wage.
The bill did, however, raise teacher salaries by 50 percent right away, with plans to double them down the line, according to Shahad of the FJP. President Mohamed Morsi has given that legislation the stamp of approval, making it law.