By: Simon Willis
English from day one. So said the Egyptian Minister of Education, quoted in the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm last Friday. Surely, kindergarten kiddies are being taught the tongue of Milton and Shakespeare from the time the bus matron escorts them through the portals of the friendly seat of learning and the education of gentlefolk. What’s new? Excuse me, read further. Many parents are upset by the fact that as of next school year, English will be taught as a separate subject from embryo-hood to 6th year primary. Science and mathematics will be taught in English from first year preparatory.
Education Minister Tarek Shawqi recently unveiled the outlines of a plan to develop education. These outlines can be seen on the minister’s Facebook page. The aim is to integrate the new curriculum with efforts to take the country on the road to development, to restore the nation’s glory and to revive the Egypt’s youthful vigour and competitiveness through high quality education that could rank with the world’s best.
The result of five months’ hard work, the development plan has four dimensions. The first two involve nurturing basic and cognitive skills. Number three comprises social skills, followed by life skills – all of which are to meet the challenges in Egyptian society, the Arab community and at global level. Such is the modern-look all-round education and preparation for real life.
The philosophy behind the plan stems from ideas tabled for the vision of Egypt 2030 and the Strategic Plan for Education 2014-2030, concentrating on top quality teaching for all without discrimination. The emphasis will be on critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and competition in various fields of work in order to promote self-esteem, self-enlightenment, sense of responsibility and respect for differences.
This task has been accomplished by the Centre for Curriculum Development and Syllabuses at the Ministry of Education, with the help of experts trained at home and abroad.
Developing education is hard work and it will take years to complete, reforming the system from kindergarten to the final year of secondary stage. The ministry is said to be in a race against time, which is why KG1 and first year primary pupils will embark on the new curriculum – English as separate subject, while maths and science in English from 1st year preparatory – as of September this year.
By contrast, the 1870 Education Act in England and Wales responded to the country’s need to remain competitive in the world by being at the cutting edge of manufacture and improvement. Otherwise, no resounding fanfare; only visions of competent employees in shops, factories and offices able to read and write, measure and calculate, as per the requirements of private enterprise. Meanwhile, the children of the aristocracy were throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth dragged through Latin and Greek, flogged after football or rugby, groomed for a place at Oxford or Cambridge universities. Science? That was left to the downtrodden and those who rose through the social ranks by their own efforts. Michael Faraday, known for his ground-breaking work in electro-magnetism, was apprenticed to a bookbinder. George Stevenson – the father of rail traction – was an engineman for a coalmine in England’s northeast. For these and many other men of their caliber saw the value of education from afar and enjoyed the benefits much later in life. Fast forward two centuries and British education seems superficial. Periodic testing is the norms while bureaucrats and experts compile criteria, learning objectives, and school league tables to show which institution is churning out la crème de la crème in today’s UK. The Digital Age means greater reliance on technology that can be manipulated by the many but repaired by the expensive few when it breaks down. They talk of tablets in the classroom and tranquilisers for teachers and/or amphetamines to keep them awake at night to marking practice tests, to which teaching is lamentably geared.
Back to Egypt. As for confining the teaching of English as an independent subject until preparatory stage, scientific and mathematical terms are to be taught as part of the courses of study. So Tamer in first primary might learn that plants are green because they contain klurufil (chlorophyll), which is pretty neat because most technical terms are transliterations from English.
Meanwhile, nothing has been said about French. Children might be relieved to learn that another foreign language (French or German) will be added to the curriculum only at 7th primary. At this point, someone might raise a protesting finger and ask, What about Mandarin Chinese? Forget it. Only trendy private schools in London offer such an arcane tongue because it looks good on the prospectus. Besides, that brand of Chinese is the official language and not everyone on the Chinese mainland speaks it well, but it is understood. China is becoming one of the world’s biggest consumers of raw materials and can send a man or two in space, but English is more likely to remain the language of commerce. Anyway, tons of people speak French, especially outside France, where they often speak it better than their erstwhile colonial masters.
Altering teaching priorities regarding English, maths and science is all well and good, but two aspects of education are often overlooked amid the talk of a preparation fit for life in the 21st century – teacher training and teacher’s salaries. The latter is clearly a stumbling block, especially in view of the huge industry in private lessons. The former will necessitate a serious review and a frank appraisal of its sheer ineffectiveness. As long as there are kids in classrooms, there will also be tests, quizzes and examinations that end up making education for those on both sides of the desk an ordeal and a necessary evil.
I fear some teachers have a long way to go before they realise how they bore their students. By “some teachers” I mean the intellectual martinets who strut into a classroom and announce to tired seven-year-olds that they are going to learn about the present continuous.
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