Posted on Friday, 24 October 2014 12:40

Education: We are what we teach

By Kalundi Serumaga in Kampala

Photo©Jacques Torregano/Fedephoto for JATo avoid a crisis in a few decades' time, governments must act now in order to improve schools and protect the economic advances made since the 1990s. That means developing a new generation of schools that teach students the skills needed for the future and the critical thinking to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Underneath the savagery, there is a cold logic to Boko Haram's violent targeting of schools in Nigeria. If you wish to change a society, the education system is a good place to start.


The graph illustrates that school populations in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are rising while those in the rest of the world have slipped, and while the number of children not in school in SSA has fallen, it still lags behind the level of decrease elsewhere.

Even without the Islamists, Africa faces one of its starkest challenges: before 2050 there will be an estimated billion people under the age of 18 on the continent. Its leaders must invest massively in education or risk condemning a generation to unemployment and poverty.

Too often rhetoric fails to match action. Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan in his 2010 campaign said: "Let the word go out from here that I will be for the students, teachers and parents of Nigeria, a president who will advance quality and competitive education."

In practice, Nigeria spends 8.5% of its budget on education; South Korea spends 25%. The struggle will not be about handing out laptops. Rather, the hard work will be building schools, training teachers and ensuring that the skills imparted will serve the industries of tomorrow.

Ugandan writer Daniel Kalinaki warned in March that "with the youngest population in the world and one of the highest levels of youth unemployment, the poor education and training we are giving our young people should be a national emergency. Yet we, too, are sleepwalking into a crisis of epic proportions."

As children returned to school across Africa in September, schooling was the subject of many a heated debate and a cause of concern for parents and their children alike.

Nigerian lawyer Jide Bello has more choice than most. He schooled in Kaduna in the 1960s in the school for the children of military officers. Nearly all schools and universities were public then. He appreciated his time at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in the 1970s.

"It was said to have the finest library south of the Sahara," he explains. When he went to Manchester, UK, to continue his studies, students were using the same econometrics textbooks as in ABU.

During a law degree in Jos in the 1980s, he says that he started to see a change. From the 1990s, the decay accelerated, with regular strikes and other problems. Students studying for a three-year bachelor's degree would take six or more years to complete it, he tells The Africa Report.

Now he is putting his daughter through school. He says public school was not an option as it is very poorly resourced. He started paying £3,000-£4,000 ($4,900-$6,500) per term for an elite private education at a Corona Trust secondary school.

His daughter did not like it, he explains: "This is a 12-year-old telling me that it was not value for money." The computing facilities were not good, and the teachers were not encouraging students to read. "And this in the information age, the 21st century," exclaims Bello.

He found a British school for her in Dorset, UK,where the library is fantastic. Ironically, it is the same school where the chairman of Corona Trust now sends his own child. If even the elite is exiting the elite school system, there is a grave problem.

If education is how a society passes on all the knowledge that may help its rising generation thrive in the future, then perhaps there is no real education system in much of Africa.

This certainly seems to be the case in Eastern Africa, if a June report from the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA), is anything to go by. It says that at least half of the region's graduates "lack employability skills, technical mastery and basic work-related capabilities."

This is common throughout Africa, where there are large skills gaps between what employers need and what schools provide. While there is 24% unemployment in South Africa, the government maintains a list of jobs in high demand, with engineers filling up most of the top spots.

Employers have their say

Only a few governments are rising to the challenge. In Morocco and Ethiopia, the governments are bringing companies, as the employers of African graduates, to the table to discuss how to train students with the requisite skills to build dams and assemble cars.

Education cannot be a privately organised affair: resources for curriculum content, infrastructure development, development research and regulation are properly things for which only a government can mobilise. But governments cannot ignore the private sector in designing curricula.

As it stands, few are happy with the state of affairs. Just 33% of those surveyed in Sierra Leone and 38% in Mali expressed satisfaction with their education systems in a 2013 poll by Gallup. Rwanda (83%) and Ethiopia (76%) were the top scorers in the survey.

Technology – in the form of laptops for all, online education or video conferencing to allow teachers to have a virtual presence in several classrooms – offers no panacea. Simply connecting students to the internet does not necessarily lead to better education outcomes.

Parents, in the meantime, have sought what should have been temporary, but have become permanent 'solutions' in the face of inertia from governments. This has led to the emergence of a three-tier education system.

The first tier is the original colonial mission-school model. This was designed to produce very junior civil servants and state functionaries, and tends to remain the domain of the state, sometimes in partnership with the still-powerful original missionary churches.

Under the donor-driven reforms that swept Africa from the mid-1990s, these schools were expanded to include a new plank of supposedly free and accessible-to-all primary education. Governments continue to struggle to expand education without reducing the quality of the learning offered.

Results factories

The second tier is a privately owned school system that has been cloned from the original model by local businesspeople. Due to the slowness of the government in providing education in Nigeria's mega-city of Lagos, private schools accounted for 88% of the total number of schools in 2011.

Outwardly, these private schools maintain the appearance and posture of those in the original model but they are in reality results factories, where their pupils are trained in hothouse fashion to cram data for the specific purpose of passing national examinations. This results in a permanent arms race with all other such schools.

The third tier is vaguely modelled on a hybrid of British and American private schools. These target that growing species of pan-African family whose parents have the skills and qualifications to find themselves employed as highly paid senior managers of international humanitarian or commercial organisations.

With the children of the political elites – who abandoned the very state systems they manage as government ministers or menace as wealthy warlords – and Western expatriates, this category functions behind a social firewall of exorbitant fees.

In short, education in Africa seems to be increasingly taking on the appearance of a badly supervised evening market in which nobody really knows the quality of what they are buying – or even selling, for that matter.

Template thinkers

The dilemma that this presents to all responsibly minded parents is clear. They will of course want the best possible education they can obtain for their offspring.

As child growth cannot be put on hold to allow the authorities the extra time they need to function properly, parents are compelled to reach for what they can within the existing poor choices.

They are poor choices because, despite their aim to differentiate themselves from one another, these three models actually have something in common: none of them addresses the actual education needs of African societies.

The original mission-school systems simply continue to produce the type of African mind required by colonial authority, and that has been most damaging in the post-colonial setting, where policy-makers have remained wedded to a preference for foreign solutions across the board over any home-grown initiatives for the challenges they face.

Lynn Najjemba, a senior development worker at the Panos Institute, describes them as "template thinkers".

The expanded secular state model simply produces a permanent under- class of persons no longer capable of rural agricultural labour, but wholly unsuited to either further education or urban employment. In Nigeria, the pass rate on the West African Senior School Certificate Examination this year was just 31.2%, showing that a majority of students is not receiving a basic education.

With the elite third tier, what in effect these parents are buying for their offspring is social and cultural insulation from the angst of the rest of the population. As a basis for future career networking, this type creates a strategic danger: although such children may well end up in charge of the continent, they will know virtually nothing about its soul.

At the end of it all, the African child is still not being best prepared to face the world it will grow up to occupy, and a lot of money and effort is being put towards its miseducation.

This is a matter that should be the subject of a much wider debate than at present, even if certain African countries seem more open to learning from the successes and failures in the field of education across the world.

South Korea and Singapore, two countries that have developed rapidly over the past several decades, have been offering training and partnership arrangements with countries like Rwanda.

We must go back to a central question: What knowledge, skills and wisdom will the African child require to face tomorrow's world? ●

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