A sharp-eyed view of the educational picture in Cairo generally, by long-time expat, parent and GSGI editor Janet Breeze. Before you choose a neighborhood or school, weigh the traffic and commute along with the usual suspects like curriculum, accreditation, facilities.
Cairo’s ring-road is awash with hoardings advertising language schools of all descriptions - French, Canadian, British, American or German. You can often glimpse them too – grandiose structures with Grecian pillars implying perhaps that they should be up there, counted amongst the great seats of learning.
Their aspirations are high, but their achievements somewhat less apparent. Designed to attract the burgeoning middle class of Cairo who despair of the national education system, many are new and privately-owned and, while some invest considerably in facilities and attracting good staff, are not generally considered to offer a standard of education acceptable to most expats. Those that do, have a much longer history and, in the main, were specifically set up to cater to foreign embassy and company staff.
There are currently 4 schools regularly used by English-speaking expats – British International School Cairo (BISC), Cairo American College (CAC), Maadi British International School (MBIS) and New Cairo British International School (NCBIS). Another is beginning to attract attention due to its results and general ethos and may be a good option for those looking for a more Egyptian experience – the Modern English School (MES).
British International School Cairo (BISC) was established 30 years ago and for some years only accepted foreign students. Nowadays it serves primarily the Egyptian business elite, although due to its excellent academic record, particularly at GCSE and IB levels, and central location, it has continued to attract a sizeable expatriate student body. Pupils are known for being hard-working and motivated and staff dedicated and professional.
In the 2008-9 academic year, the school relocated to new premises some 30 kilometres from its previous Zamalek premises (where it retains an office), to the east of Cairo off the Alex Desert Road. The new school has a capacity of 1200, double its current size, and offer state-of-the-art classroom, sporting and other facilities, which hitherto had not been strengths of the school. BISC is also committed to continuing to employ the high calibre UK-trained staff that has been the mainstay of its success. Many have moved, as have parents, to 6th October City and other residential developments in the area, attracted by the clean air, pools, gardens and rapidly expanding but less congested infrastructure.
These developments currently house some 600,000 with growth projected to rise to 3 million, in time, probably more of them expats. However, currently the most popular suburbs amongst short-term expats are the other side of town and many are reluctant to relocate or send their children on long bus journeys (can be 30-40 minutes in the morning, an hour in the afternoon, and up to 2 hours after after-school clubs...with the result that some of the younger children in particular don't do them) along what is perceived to be one of Egypt’s most dangerous roads.
This is to the benefit of other international schools in the more established expat suburbs and out-of-town residential developments. With no well-respected English language school remaining in central Cairo, there is a vacuum, forcing parents to accept long journeys for their children out to the suburbs, despite serious misgivings.
Cairo American College (CAC) opened its doors over 60 years ago and takes students from 3-18. It is located in Maadi and offers an American style education (AP courses, SATs etc) and community to, in particular, Cairo’s sizeable US expat population, who compose nearly half of its intake. Most families live in the vicinity and claim to have developed strong networks through the school, which has a friendly air and is used extensively out of school hours for sporting and other activities. The facilities, and particularly swimming pool, library, theatre and art rooms, are great and a phased schedule of improvements has been drawn up which is now underway. Staff and students interact quite informally which, along with the forthrightness of some of the parents might jar with more reserved Brits. Many though welcome the lack of formality – and uniform – and praise the teachers for being accessible and committed to the happiness and development of the whole child.
Maadi British International School (MBIS) is a popular primary school, also in Maadi, which takes children from 3-11 and traditionally has been a feeder school to either BISC or NCBIS which also follow the English National Curriculum. UK nationals compose approximately half the students although 30+ nationalities are represented. In common with many international schools, many move on after 3 or so years, but children usually integrate easily, both socially and academically, and mums often stop and chat after school drop-off, and welcome newcomers with open arms. Some years on from the move to its purpose-built premises, the surroundings are still a little reminiscent of a moonscape, but the grounds are pleasant and over the past year or so a new tennis court, sports field and social area have been installed which supplement the indoor swimming pool and pleasant classrooms, with newly-installed IT equipment well. The gene pool is good and kids are confident and achieve.
New Cairo British International School (NCBIS), situated near the residential area of Katameya, runs from 3-18 and has British and Dutch streams. It is non-selective and favoured by parents who value a more relaxed and internationally diverse environment and, while expecting results, perhaps don’t feel that their kids will react well to the more pressurised learning environment of BISC. The results and general vibe are good and there’s lots going on for pupils and, increasingly parents, both in and outside school hours as it enhances its profile as a community school. BISC’s move is increasing the intake from MBIS, and standards are generally considered to be rising, as parents and staff are eager to meet the demand for a conveniently located good quality school offering a British education.
Modern English School (MES) was established in the early 1990s. In recent years has begun to attract the attention of professional Egyptian families from all over the city and is a good option for expat families looking for a more local experience. Educationalists praise its high professional standards and it boasts a strong teaching body with very varied international teaching backgrounds. Staff and parents appreciate management’s open, business-like and no-nonsense approach and the environment in which children of all abilities are encouraged to go on and achieve in their chosen fields.
The Lycee Francais de Caire is the main school that caters for French speaking children up to French Baccalaureate level (from ages 3-18) and is the centre for Administration. Its premises in central Maadi have a certain charm and it is fed by branches in Heliopolis and Zamalek which provide education from three years to secondary school level (age 10 – 11). All are over-subscribed and notoriously difficult to get into.
The Deutsche Evangelische Oberschule in Dokki is the best known of a number of German schools in Cairo. It offers similar standards as, and lower fees than, some of the other good foreign language schools and as such attracts Egyptian and international families.
Pre-schools and nurseries
If you do not choose the pre-school facilities at one of the above, there are various options, which go in and out of favour, with word traveling fast when and if incidents upset. Those currently popular include Small Talk, which has two branches, one near CAC and goes up to Reception Year; the Irish nursery with sections in Dokki and Maadi, and French and English streams; Stepping Stones in Maadi, and the Montessori Nursery, also in Maadi. The Community Services Association (CSA) in Maadi provides a list and, of course, mums’ personal recommendations. Elsewhere, people tend to look in their immediate locale for early years schools.
Special Education Needs
The Learning Resource Centre (LRC) was established in 1996 and is now widely considered the leading institution in Egypt catering to children with special needs. LRC invests heavily in training and development and co-operates with cutting-edge international organisations including the Institute of Education, University of London.
It provides educational support services to a number of leading international schools which regularly refer children to it for assessment and individual assistance (some say too readily). Part and full-time specialists from a range of disciplines - psychologists, behavioural therapists, speech and language pathologists, occupational and physical therapists and educational specialists – are also available for individual consultations, although there are waiting lists for some.
LRC is proud of its inter-disciplinary diagnostic approach. A four-step procedure assesses the child’s needs and leads to detailed recommendations and, as necessary, an individual plan of action is drawn up. Support and counselling is provided to children and parents at LRC and through a number of schools and nurseries in Cairo. Parents are impressed by the thoroughness and professionalism of staff and, although some of the services are pricey, they are generally considered to give good value for money.
LRC operates from a house in a leafy residential suburb of Cairo with a small garden and playground. It also clinically supervises the nearby Advance Centre (www.advance-society.org) which caters to children between the ages of 2-21 with autism and related disorders.
N.B. Readers won’t find a full fledged GSGI write-up on the LRC because it is a learning center but not a school in the strictest sense of the word. However, our editor has personal knowledge of it, parents speak highly of it, and it was recommended by all the schools our editor visited (contact details available under schools listings plus Cairo Schools Considered by Expats)