GAMBIA: Poor teaching quality slows education progress

Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Enrolment rates at all levels of education have improved in The Gambia since 2000, but with too few qualified teachers and low staff retention levels, fewer than half of Gambian students pass standardised tests.

In 2008 national exams, just 20 percent of grade-three students passed English and 18 percent Maths. Grade-five students fared little better – 30 percent of them passed English and 13 percent Maths, according to a Department of Education strategy published in August 2008.

“Quality remains a serious problem in Gambian schools,” said Min-whee Kang, representative for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in The Gambia.

High teacher and student absenteeism, low content knowledge of trainee teachers, and few career development opportunities for teachers, compromise quality education, according to the Department of Education’s 2008-11 strategy.

Quality the greatest challenge

Over half of the country’s teachers are unqualified according to Isatou Ndow, head of the government staff training college, Gambia College, which trains all government teachers.

Up until recently many of the teaching trainees were hardly educated themselves, said Ndow, and many paid people to sit their exams for them to get them into the school. As a result, “Some trainees were so poorly qualified upon entering our college that rather than teaching them how to teach, we have to instruct them in Maths and English from scratch.”

The college now has a strict interview policy to try to stamp out this practice, according to Ndow. The government has set ambitious targets to train 350 new primary school and 300 secondary school teachers a year.

But education officials say it is difficult to attract qualified candidates. At 1,200 Delasi (US$28) a month, teaching is not a popular profession, said headmistress Awa Johndimbalan of New Joshua lower basic school in Fajara, 6km from Banjul. “It’s hard to live on this when a [50-kg] bag of rice costs 1,000 Delasi ($40),” she said. “Teachers leave our school to join the army, set up a business, or go to the US or Britain.”

Training college director Ndow said, “Young people today want quick money. The government pays to train them, they stay one year and then they leave. We [the government] are losing money this way.”

Quality is even lower at religious schools, or Madrassas, which educate one in seven Gambian students, Ndow said.

At the Madrassa Bilal Boarding school in Serekunda, 8km from the capital Banjul, teachers instruct girls in Arabic, the Koran, and worship. None of the teachers are qualified to teach English or Maths and the principal Amadou Jallow does not understand basic English, the country’s official language.

He administers the girls the exams himself, and when it comes to monitoring teachers, “I am the quality control,” he said.
Government changes

The government is trying to improve access to quality education under its 2008-11 strategy, UNICEF’s Kang said.

This involves stepping up the training and supply of teachers, improving early child education, reforming the national curriculum across both government and religious schools, providing schools with textbooks and other supplies, and introducing standardised national exams.

The Gambian government puts 19.5 percent of its annual budget toward education.

UNICEF’s Min-whee praises the effort. “Education is now the only sector in the country with a sector-wide plan,” she said. “There is a real spirit of partnership now between the government and UNICEF – they are committed to ambitious reforms.”


The Gambia has seen some progress over the past three years, partly thanks for $13.5 million in World Bank ‘education for all’ funding. Enrolment rates are up from 85 percent in 1998 to 92 percent in 2007 at the primary level, and from 29 percent to 65 percent at advanced primary, according to the Department of Education strategy.

Pupil-teacher ratios have improved, with 30 students now compared to 45, and some school principals say as a result they are starting to see better exam results. “We now have qualified teachers. The government pays for them to go on management courses each year; and our exam pass rate improved in 2007,” said Johndimbalan.

Quality in Madrassas and rural schools in particular, is improving, according to Ndow. Qualified teachers are now paid 50 percent extra to teach in remote rural schools. And 149 Madrassas have accepted government grants to introduce the national curriculum and introduce English language education; this is double the number the government had expected would participate in the voluntary programme. In return, the schools receive teaching materials and partake in national school-feeding programmes.

“They [principals at Madrassas] are starting to realise they’re at a disadvantage if they’re not qualified,” Ndow said.

But challenges remain. Ndow fears these efforts will not have a real impact unless teacher quality is more closely monitored. At the moment there is no performance management system in place, so poor teachers can remain in the system for years, she said.

“How do you put in place a performance management system? How do you develop a curriculum across all schools? How do donors coordinate better on quality issues? These are the questions donors are now asking,” UNICEF’s Kang told IRIN.

To bring education quality in line with attendance improvements, the government will need more sustained financing, said Kang.

Despite World Bank, African Development Bank and bilateral donor funding over the past few years, overall funding to education, even with the government’s allocation “is still a pittance”, said Kang.

“Investment in education is not a one-off – it requires a forever-fund,” she said. “If more [donor] funding doesn’t flow even the 19.5 percent won’t be enough to improve quality in the long-term.”