Classes are overcrowded, curriculums out of date and facilities crumbling. In Egypt, frustrated parents have for decades relied on private tutors as overpopulation and government neglect have eviscerated public education.
And with the Arab world’s most populous country plunged into turmoil since 2011, when a popular uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak, hopes for reform are slimmer than ever as security dominates the political agenda.
At one primary school south of Cairo, 90 students sat at splintered desks in a noisy classroom built for 40.
“The conditions in which we work are extremely difficult. I have so many students in my classroom that I simply can’t give them the required attention,” maths teacher Hanna Ahmed said.
Egypt came last in September’s Global Competitiveness Report that looked at the quality of primary education in 148 countries, prompting even government officials to concede there was a problem.
“There is a great level of dissatisfaction with the education system in Egypt,” Mahmud Abul Nasr, education minister in the interim government installed by the military after its July 3 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, told AFP.
Free education was a pillar of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist reforms in the 1950s and 1960s, bringing the dream of social mobility and opportunity to those long trapped in a rigid class system.
But over the decades, education - like other public services - has fallen prey to Egypt’s bloated and corrupt civil service, with poorly paid and undertrained staff drilling students based on the outdated method of rote learning.
Textbooks are out of date and moralistic in tone, and educators complain that exam results have become less about student achievement and more about fulfilling government quotas.
Mubarak’s 30-year rule saw the rise of private and foreign language schools catering to wealthier families, partly restoring the class divide Abdel Nasser’s policies had tried to eliminate.
“The system is so bad now that I’m forced to make up for the poor quality by having my children take private lessons,” says Hanan Atta, who enrolled her children in school 10 years ago.
“It’s much worse now than it was then,” she told AFP.
Teachers are forced to supplement their meagre income with private lessons, leaving them exhausted as well as unmotivated.
Atta says she pays 2,000 Egyptian pounds ($290, 220 euros) per month for private lessons in various subjects.
“It’s a huge strain on our budget at home, but I have no choice, I want my children to learn,” she said.
Experts say the problem goes far beyond lack of resources, with successive governments suppressing critical thinking for the sake of a more obedient society.
“Education is looked at from a security point of view,” says education expert Kamal Mughith.
“The state does not want children to be released from the grip of the ruling authority... It does not want the children to have critical thinking, analysis or thought.”
The system has come to appear even more antiquated as Egyptians have embraced mobile technology and the Internet, both of which were widely used by young activists during the revolt that toppled Mubarak and in organising subsequent protests.
“This is a generation of computers and tablets. They are much more exposed to the world than we were at that age. The system now leaves them unchallenged and uninterested,” said Dalia Hashem, a mother of two in Cairo who sends her children to private schools.
The government allocates 2,000 Egyptian pounds of government spending on each of its 16 million students annually, 85 percent of which goes to teachers’ salaries.
Mughith says the system is kept at a basic minimum - “a teacher, books, students” - with little creativity when it comes to teaching methods.
“It is impossible to ask for professionalism from a teacher who gets less than 100 dollars a month. It’s not enough to live,” said Mughith.
The situation outside the capital is even worse.
One teacher from the northern city of Damietta, Hisham Mohammed, said his school had not even received books.
“It is the middle of the school year and we have no material. How are we expected to work?” he told AFP.
Education minister Abul Nasr says the ministry has put together a “strategic plan to improve the quality of education”.
The ministry has designed a two-track government school system where one type of school would be free and the other would have small fees.
“It would still be affordable to most Egyptians, but the difference would be in the facilities in both types of school,” he said.
But Mughith says more far-reaching change is needed.
“The situation will only improve once there is a political will to do so. All the rest - human resources, salaries, facilities - will follow naturally,” he said.