Could small schools be the way to address overcrowding at schools? In an attempt to overcome a schools shortage crisis, the Education Ministry began setting out a plan last year to build “small schools” that comply with certain constructional specifications and standards. The idea of introducing these mini schools is geared towards luring small investors to the education sector, leading in turn to an increase in the number of schools serving students in congested areas and remote villages.
The concept of small schools isn’t new: In the US, the Small Schools Initiative cropped up over a decade ago, based on the argument that larger secondary schools should be restructured into smaller independent institutions where the absolute number of students is ideally below 200, and does not exceed 400. The idea — which has been applied to both private and public schools — is thought to offer students a feeling of connectedness among their community, with which they share similar interests, while also reducing the teacher-to-student ratio.
A quick overview of Egypt’s current student population: Enrollment rates in Egypt have been on the rise, in tandem with the number of school-age students as the population continues to grow, according to government data. The number of students across different education levels grew 21.6% between the 2015-2016 academic year and 2019-2020, when it hit 24.2 mn students. The number of schools has also inched up in the past years, reaching 56.5k in 2020-2021, up from 55.2k in 2019-2020 and 53.58k in 2018-2019. However, between 2017 and 2021, the student-to-classroom ratio in public education grew 15%, according to the World Bank (pdf).
Public investment in education infrastructure has been rising: The government’s budget for FY 2022-2023 raised its planned investment and expenditure for education, higher education, and academic research by c.22.8% y-o-y. The budget earmarks EGP 317 bn for K12 education, while higher education was given EGP 159.2 bn, with spending plans covering bolstering infrastructure and addressing classroom overcrowding by building, replacing, and revamping 25k classrooms across different education levels. The spending plan is also dedicated to expanding tech schools, as well as other institutions targeting the middle-income segment such as the Japanese-Egyptian schools, state-funded Nile Egyptian Schools, STEM schools, and public international and national schools.
Smaller schools could help address infrastructure gaps, but the project is still under study, Abdel Nasser Saadallah, manager of the Giza Educational Buildings Authority, told Enterprise. The government is still studying the model’s application in different global settings to decide how to best apply it in the Egyptian context through a public-private partnership mechanism, Saadallah said.
Could this be a way to revive the stalled PPP schools program? 15 consortiums have submitted offers for the public-private partnership (PPP) framework which the government is looking to revive after a three-year suspension, Atter Hannoura, director of the Finance Ministry’s PPP unit said. The Education Ministry is open for bids for 1k language schools by 2030 after resolving obstacles which have suspended the program temporarily, including a shortage of plots. “We’re currently ready for tenders — there’s huge investor demand for the program,” Hannoura said.
One big challenge: Finding accessible land plots: Some residential areas face a shortage of land needed to build the schools, which is problematic because schools need to be in close proximity to residential areas to accommodate students’ young age, Private Schools Owners Association Chairman Badawy Allam tells us. Small schools could be a way around the land availability issue, since they require smaller spaces than typical institutions, Allam suggested. The shortage of available large land plots have led to a rise in investment cost in the sector with alternatives usually opting for plots outside residential areas, including in satellite cities. The government is currently looking at the availability of land in governorates outside of Cairo and Alexandria to accommodate small schools and lure in investors, Saadallah said.
The good news: There’s a lot of investment potential: The education sector remains unsaturated, making it an investment magnet, Ahmed Samir, who owns two international schools in New Cairo and the new administrative capital, told Enterprise. The sector has a shortage of K-12 schools, especially at the elementary level, Samir said. This has led to a rise in demand for schools that have been built in the new capital, he added. The small schools model has been implemented successfully in several countries globally, but it would be best if it were tested in a limited number to determine its effectiveness in areas facing a shortage of schools, he said.
Gulf and Arab investors in particular could be keen to get in on the action: Samir expects the sector to see a pickup in investment demand in the coming period, especially as a weaker currency makes investments more financially attractive for regional and foreign investors. Opening up the education sector to the private sector and reducing barriers would lead to more diversity in sectors depending on investors’ financial capabilities amid a higher cost to build new integrated schools, he said.
Some legislative amendments are necessary: Addressing classroom overcrowding needs more solutions beyond implementing a digital transformation strategy and creating a PPP framework — both of which are commendable, but not sufficient on their own, Allam said. Some necessary steps from the government include addressing issues that hinder investments and undermine returns from a healthy education sector, Allam said, pointing specifically to a government-imposed cap on tuition fee hikes despite rising costs.
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