Egyptian School Saga: Desperation, Scams, Suicide
Cairo - Soad Ahmed Hassan paces anxiously outside the school where her daughter is sitting Egypt's end of year exams. So far the test has driven two pupils to suicide and sparked a wave of corruption claims.
At the Gamal Abdel Nasser school in central Cairo a dozen mothers wait for their children to finish the dreaded "thanawiya amma" - Egypt's equivalent of A-levels or SATs - that largely determine a child's future.
In a country rife with corruption where some 20 percent live below the poverty line, a university education, especially a degree in medicine or engineering, can help to break down rigid class barriers.
The stakes are high for most parents, who pour much of their meagre salaries into private tuition to compensate for a crumbling education system in which classrooms are overcrowded, teachers frustrated and under-paid and schools under-resourced.
Most students taking the thanawiya amma come from middle- and low-income families, with wealthier students able to opt for private education at English, French or German schools.
The social mobility coveted by many students and their families depends in part on two years' aggregated exam results. In 2008 the pressure has already driven two students to suicide.
Hassan Mohammed Yussri, 16, hanged himself in his Cairo home a day after taking his maths exam. And in the canal city of Port Said, Mirhan Hani Salem, 18, jumped from her sixth floor flat on the morning of her mechanics exam.
"Both sets of parents told police that their children had been under immense stress in the run-up to the exams," a security official said.
The fiercely competitive test pushes parents to find new ways to help their children cheat... shouting answers outside classroom windows, using text messages or even hiding cheat sheets under religious headscarves.
Twirling a silver keychain, Soad paces outside the school gates waiting for her daughter Rania, as she and other mothers mumble prayers and supplications.
Then the students begin streaming out, some crying, some angry, and form clusters outside the school to analyse the minutiae of the day's mechanics exam.
A tearful Rania is among them. "A disaster like all the others," she tells Soad, burying her head in her mother's shoulder and sobbing.
In 2008 the pressure was even more intense amid reports that some exam questions were not part of the curriculum and that papers were leaked in advance to rich and powerful parents.
Public prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmud told reporters last week that 19 people would face trial for leaking exam papers, including a police officer, a headmaster and three education ministry employees.
The prosecutor insisted to a disbelieving public that the corruption was limited to the southern province of Menya and did not affect most of the roughly 800 000 students sitting the exam.
The case has gripped the nation, bringing together state and opposition media in a rare show of unity to demand answers. Columnists have demanded a re-sit, with teachers and academics supporting them.
Mostafa Kamal Mohammed Yussuf, a professor of science at Mansura University and head of the committee that wrote the national physics textbook, admitted to the state-owned daily Al-Ahram that the exams were too difficult and did not correspond to the curriculum. He called for an inquiry.
As a result of his and other such testimony, a rumour that the government was deliberately limiting the numbers entering university became an unshakable truth for many parents.
"Why didn't they just tell us our children don't have a chance of getting into university?" demands a furious Soad.
"People like us can't even think of sending them to a private university."
Small private universities charge about 5 000 Egyptian pounds (about R7 006) per year, with fees reaching up to £100 000 (about R140 133) at the more prestigious American or German Universities in Cairo - far beyond the budget of the average household.
The exams are also an enormous financial burden on most parents who are forced to pay for private tuition costing up to 100 Egyptian pounds a day throughout the academic year.
Hussein Abdel Rahman, 52, teaches at a public school in Cairo and makes 400 Egyptian pounds a month.
But in order to afford the second-hand Suzuki he drives and to provide his family of five with a middle-class lifestyle, he supplements his salary with private tuition.
He charges each student 20 Egyptian pounds an hour and refuses to teach students individually, insisting on a group of at least ten pupils per lesson.
"If I lost my job at the school today it wouldn't make a difference. That salary doesn't go very far," he says.
A cartoon in the state-owned Al-Messai newspaper shows two undertakers talking.
"The death business is booming these days. Those who escape the price hikes will die of the difficult thanawiya amma exam," one tells the other, referring to soaring inflation that sparked deadly riots and a wave of popular discontent earlier in 2008.
Outside the school there is both despair and fury as the mothers debate what to do next.
Soad, who comes from a family of eight children in the rural Nile Delta and married at 17, says she broke with rural tradition and had only two children in the hope that she could afford to give them a better education.
"If I'd known it would be like this I would have had more children, lived in the village and married off my daughter," she says.