The Egyptian state school system is based on learning the content of prescribed textbooks. Although school is free in theory, many children are unable to attend because their parents are not in a position to raise the money for school uniforms, school books and textbooks. Since the books in lower school are designed as workbooks, in which the answers to the tasks are entered, the oldest child in the family cannot pass on the textbooks to siblings. Additional costs arise because the class targets can hardly be achieved without extra tuition. Because of their miserable wages, teachers are dependent on income from extra tuition or other second jobs and there is therefore little incentive for them to support children in regular classes – a vicious circle. For years Egyptians have talked about the necessity of reform but nothing happens. It is not for nothing that in February the Ministry of Religious Affairs prescribed “logical thinking and science” as the subject for the sermon at Friday prayers.
Despite all of these things, education is highly valued among the population. Families are prepared to make great sacrifices to enable their children to have a good education. The result has been a great number of expensive private schools, language schools and higher education institutions of varying quality which however merely replicate the state system in a more efficient form or work towards qualifications from European countries, the USA or Japan. Fundamentally new educational concepts are sought in vain.
A school organism arises
Against this background it was clear to Ibrahim Abouleish and the Sekem team from the beginning that the future of Egypt was crucially dependent on new educational impulses. An separate school organism was created on the farm in parallel to the development of agriculture and the business enterprises. It comprises all stages starting with kindergarten: school, vocational school, classes for children with disabilities, academy and, as the most recent addition, Heliopolis University. One unusual feature are the “chamomile children”. These are children from poor families in the surroundings who are needed at home to contribute to the family income or who are unable to attend school for other reasons. They are employed on the farm doing light work such as picking chamomile or arnica flowers, for which they are remunerated, and additionally they receive lessons in the basic subjects.
While it is possible to work in the kindergarten groups largely on the basis of Waldorf education, the school has to fit into the framework of state guidelines and the Islamic environment. But visitors from Europe will find many familiar elements from Waldorf school. Thus there are main lessons, but it is above all the pronounced artistic and crafts component which pervades all teaching: music, painting, clay modelling, recitation and drama are just as much a part of this as eurythmy and the weekly school assembly with presentations from the classes. That the assembly starts with a recitation from the Koran and many of the girls wear headscarves comes across as a natural part of Egyptian life.
Advanced teacher training and university
The teachers at the Sekem school have, as a rule, passed through state training but then participate in the continuing training in Sekem, for which Evelyne Schindler is due particular credit. To begin with, the training is aimed at acquiring basic skills such as independent lesson preparation and methodological efficiency; but, together with speech training, it also comprises the greatest variety of artistic, craft and general educational fields, including the study of ancient Egyptian culture which is poorly catered for in mainstream schools. This advanced training leads to a Sekem teaching certificate and has a side-effect which is viewed with some ambivalence as state schools and other institutions also like to employ teachers with such training. As much as that is appreciated, it represents an extra effort for the Sekem school to make up those teacher losses.
The picture is very gratifying, however, as regards the graduating pupils and the graduates of the Sekem vocational school. They are optimally set up for occupational advancement in an environment marked by high unemployment. In the meantime, the first school leavers have also started their studies at Heliopolis University and other higher education institutions and their contribution to the development of Egypt can be anticipated with hope.
Although Sekem can be seen as an oasis, it is engaged in many different reciprocal relationships. Cooperation agreements with a whole range of Egyptian and international higher education institutions are already being implemented in the research field and they are to be extended in future with an exchange programme for students and lecturers.
About the author: Dr. Bruno Sandkühler was a teacher at the Michael Bauer School in Stuttgart and as a specialist in Middle Eastern studies has for decades had a close connection with Egypt and Sekem.