Discipline to what end: Egypt’s failing schools and a new Education Ministry initiative
Will the Education Ministry's focus on student behavior resolve the issues?

Students in Egyptian schools may see a series of disciplinary measures begin to come into effect this week, as the Education Ministry announced the launch of the Week of General Discipline initiative on Sunday.

The punitive measures have been tailored to address a wide range of student behavior, from unexcused and long-term absences and “moral deviance” to violence between members of the school community.

Researchers, administrators and teachers, however, question whether a focus on student behavior and this latest effort at implementation will be able to resolve the issues that have plagued the Education Ministry’s policy since it was rolled out. How the policy engages with violence in Egypt’s schools, existing resolution mechanisms and informal parallel forums for teaching, like reliance on private tutoring, may render it ineffective or, worse, cause it to exacerbate certain conditions.  

In his comments on the plan on Sunday, Education Minister Al-Helaly al-Sherbiny emphasized that the measures will focus on enforcing a “list of behavioral regulations” for all schools under the auspices of the ministry rather than introducing new educational policies. He told local media outlets that the regulations aim “to train students to exhibit good behavior and decency, so that they can apply these values in society.”

Former Education Minister Moheb al-Refai first introduced the list of behavioral regulations in April 2015. Sherbiny intervened to amend the list at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, spelling out the rights and duties of Egypt’s education administrators, teachers and students in Ministerial Decree 287/2016, with the notable inclusion of a series of punitive measures for students found to be in violation.

However, according to Kamal Mougeith, a researcher from the ministry-affiliated National Center for Educational Research researchers from the center prepared the initial list of regulations the policies adopted by the Education Ministry in September 2016 have yet to be enforced in schools across the country.

The regulations that Sherbiny is looking to put his weight behind with the new action plan introduce a three-part classification for student violations, each with their own “disciplinary therapy.”

The first category aims to address both unexcused and long-term absences, as well as the failure to submit assignments or homework, while the second encompasses vandalism and the destruction of school property. The third category focuses on aggression toward fellow students, parent and student disrespect and violence toward staff and faculty members, moral deviance, and acts that the ministry labels as “self-inflicted harm,” including smoking, consumption of alcohol, tattoos and illicit drug use.

Shaded with a more political hue are acts that intentionally tarnish Egypt’s image and inflammatory acts undermining national security, both of which are folded into the third category.

The ministry has outlined a series of policies to address violations of its regulations. School administrators are initially meant to issue warnings to students, conduct parent meetings and assign students to educational specialists for analysis. After these initial steps, educators may refer students to a disciplinary board or suspend or expel students found to have habitually violated regulations.

According to the ministerial decision, these behavioral policies are a means to strengthen the values of tolerance and respect in Egypt’s schools. “[The policies] provide a safe and supportive school environment so as to help students realize proper academic and social development, while helping them to develop positive relations on the basis of mutual respect with others, along with the reinforcement of positive behaviors so as to reduce negative behaviors which subject students to disciplinary actions.”

While Mougeith attributes part of the delay in the ministerial decree’s implementation to a failure in outreach to parents, students and teachers, he also says that the emphasis on punitive measures belies claims of the program’s efficacy. He also explained that the decree quickly turned into a set of bureaucratic tools that were never implemented.

“Discipline may be measured according to the efficiency of an educational institution’s functional performance,” the researcher says. If students’ abilities, skills and creative impulses were placed at the core of the educational system, “we would have no need for a list of regulations,” he asserts.

Ayman al-Bily, a teacher from Kafr el-Sheikh and a founder of the Independent Teachers Syndicate, believes that the list of regulations is of limited use to students, parents, teachers and administrators whose interactions are governed by other informal rules.

“The teacher-student relationship is based only on force,” he says. “On one hand, teachers resort to using violence against students. Students seek to respond to this violence with their own counter-violence. And in addition to this, parents also defend their children in a manner characterized by violence.”

The state may also come up against other existing frameworks to deal with student behavior in its attempt to enforce its policies. “In rural areas and villages tribal and familial ties play a major role in resolving school disputes,” Bily highlights.

The Education Ministry’s decree makes provision for a school protection committee to be established in each school, which will presided over by the school’s principal and include representatives from parent-teacher associations, educational staff and the local student union.

For Bily, education should be centered on motivation rather than intimidation, a call that he says is absent from Egypt’s pedagogical models. Bily calls for a more democratic, inclusive and engaging educational model that draws from students and their guardians to formulate school regulations.  

The ministry’s list of regulations outlines students’ rights. However, it does not include any punitive measures for school administrator or teacher transgressions, a fact that is particularly important in cases involving violence against students.

Another fundamental problem in the ministry’s policy is its failure to deal with systemic issues underlying much of what it considers student behavior worthy of discipline.

For example, due to low teacher salaries and widespread overcrowding that reduces the amount of time an educator can provide each student, a parallel private tutoring structure has developed alongside Egypt’s schools, where teachers secure additional wages and student gain supplementary instruction.

Bily believes that disciplinary measures that attempt to enforce student attendance do not take into account public schools’ dependence on private tutoring. The conditions that led to the creation of the need for that dependance remain unchanged by the Education Ministry’s new policies.

Mai Shams El-Din 

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