A Talk with Cambridge Examinations’ CEO

By Hania Moheeb

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British Egyptian Cooperation at the Outstanding Learners Achievement Ceremony

It goes without saying that the reform of education is the foundation of any country’s progress, be it economic, political, social or scientific. An event held last March brought about some hope in this regard as the Cambridge International Examination in cooperation with the British Council recognized the achievements of 79 outstanding Egyptian students from Egyptian schools offering the Cambridge curriculum.

The grand ceremony held at the premises of the British embassy in Cairo was attended by the UK ambassador, H.E. John Casson, the newly appointed Egyptian Minister of Education, Dr. Tarek Shawky, and the CEO of Cambridge Examinations, Michael O’Sullivan.

This celebration of achievement was just an introduction to a number of promising projects within the framework of the British Egyptian cooperation for the reform of education.

The honored students who were all seated on the stage to receive the ‘Outstanding Cambridge Learner’ have scored the highest in Cambridge senior examinations; IGCSE taken by students at the end of grade 10, the Cambridge AS level taken in grade 11 and the Cambridge A levels taken in grade 12.

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We talked with the CEO of Cambridge Examinations during his short visit to Egypt for an exclusive interview.

When asked about the main characteristics of the Cambridge education system, he said, “On one hand, it is holistic education; and not about learning separate subjects. It is also about developing the overall characteristics of the child. We emphasize five Cambridge learner attributes: confident, responsible, reflective, innovative and engaged. However, it is also important to prepare for university and for life by learning deep knowledge.”

O’Sullivan goes on explaining that the system also involves helping students “learn how to understand themselves as learners” as they believe that this does not stop at the end of school or university, but is rather a continuous process in the 21st Century to keep up with the rapid changes in the world.

The best part of the celebration came about upon the announcement of the names of the top six students in the world in specific subjects, namely: physics, accounting, sociology, French as a foreign language, travel and tourism and mathematics.

Mohamed Tawfik, graduate of St. Fatima School Nasr City, mentioned, “I am currently studying engineering at the American University in Cairo. It is different from physics yet I noticed that I manage better than my colleagues in physics courses.”

Tawfik thinks that the Cambridge system is so distinct because it allows for a broader choice and it exposes students to the latest scientific finds.

Another top six achiever is Yara Hamed who scored the best in French as a foreign language. Hamed, a student of the Arab Academy for Science and Technology, says that she did not expect to be named as the top in the world, “I love French and was very keen on enhancing my knowledge of it yet the score came as a surprise.” Yara plans on pursuing a university degree in a subject other than French.

“You achieved great results and I hope you inspire your peers in Egypt to learn and reach new heights. The collaboration of Cambridge in education is solid and we are working on projects that will make a positive difference in the country,” said Egypt’s Minister of Education, proudly addressing the honored students.

The promising cooperation does not stop here as Casson mentioned that by 2018, 70 partnerships will be established between Egyptian and British universities, and a fund of 100 million Egyptian Pounds will be added to the Newton/Mesharafa Fund for science and innovation.

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He also praised the outstanding achievement of the students saying that it manifests the great potential of Egyptian students when given quality education. In his speech, Casson revealed promising plans when he said that the program the UK is carrying out with the Egyptian government has already trained 25,000 public school teachers and aims at reaching 100,000 teachers over the next few years.

More insight about this promising cooperation was given by O’Sullivan about the major project that his organization has been carrying out over the last six years: Nile International Egyptian Schools. “We are working with the government to develop a new bilingual curriculum taught partly in Arabic, partly in English and covering the whole curriculum from primary school to the end of school. Currently, it is well developed in five pilot schools in different parts of Egypt and we are looking forward to working with our Egyptian partners to expand this program. I think it could have a dramatic impact on learning in public education in Egypt.

It is certainly a big morale boost for Egyptians to know that steps are being taken to improve education, yet the long legacy of poor funding, neglect and wrong decisions can represent a challenge to those working on the project.

When asked about the main challenges, O’Sullivan said, “You need to have a realistic time plan and you need patience. Also, a principle that applies everywhere, including Egypt, is that successful reform of education must focus on the quality of the teachers and that in practice means helping teachers improve and develop.”

We also asked O’Sullivan to comment on the suggestion made by one of Egypt’s notable IT experts a couple of years ago implying that there is a shorter road to the improvement of education and this involves empowering students with tablets to help them educate themselves.

The Cambridge Examinations CEO did not seem to entirely agree with this opinion, “I have three comments to make on this matter: the first comment being that there are no quick remedies in education. Secondly, technology can certainly help improve education when it is used well. Lastly, it is almost impossible to succeed if we neglect or marginalize the role of teachers in education.”

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