Midway to the Millennium Development Goals set in 2000, several West African countries have made vast efforts to achieve universal education and gender parity in primary schools by 2015. But education officials and teachers’ unions say the push for increased access to education has come at a cost.
“Right now, governments are making a lot of effort on quantity and not quality,” Victorine Djitrinou, international education, advocacy and campaign coordinator for ActionAid International, told IRIN at a recent conference on violence against schoolgirls held in Saly, Senegal.
While enrolment numbers have improved, retention and graduation rates remain a serious problem and, in some cases, have even decreased. Officials in many West African countries say tens of thousands of unqualified teachers have a lot to do with it.
Pushed by the international community to increase enrolment, but limited by World Bank and International Monetary Fund programmes to cut costs, many West African countries hired teachers en masse, but reduced salaries and training, Education Ministry officials, teachers and aid workers told IRIN.
“We wanted to increase supply. It was urgent,” said Marie-Claire Guigma Nassa, of the Ministry of Basic Education and Literacy in Burkina Faso, where new recruits began being hired on contract instead of as tenured civil servants. Why? “It’s the donors who know why…They hold the loans. We’re more or less obliged.”
Lack of trained teachers
In Senegal, teachers’ training has been reduced from four years to six months, and in some cases, does not even exist. “Teachers are put directly into the classroom” and trained during the holidays, said Alpha Oumar Diallo, secretary-general of the Union of Professors of Senegal (SYPROS).
In Guinea “we recruit peanut vendors and woodworkers as teachers,” said Louis M’Bemba Soumah, secretary-general of the Union of Teachers and Researchers in Guinea (SLECG). “It has completely screwed up the education system.”
In the early 1990s, when the World Bank introduced structural adjustment programmes in Mali, all teachers’ colleges were shut down, union and UN sources said.
In many francophone West African countries some teachers barely speak French. Others are the same age as their students. In many countries, contract teachers are the core of the education system, far outnumbering staff hired on civil servant conditions.
Teachers’ unions say improperly trained teachers do not only provide a poorer education, but are also more likely to violate the rights of students, especially girls, as they lack ethics training. Badly paid and often lacking a sense of pride in their profession, they are more open to corruption, education experts say.
“The world is asking Africa to choose between quality and access,” Coudou Diaw, executive director of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), told IRIN. “Education is more complicated than a goal.”
Quantity but at a cost?
“Even if [the rate of] schooling has increased, quality hasn’t really followed,” said Nicole Bella, policy analyst for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, which released its latest report on the progress of nations on 29 November.
During the push for universal education, Guinea scrambled to pump out 2,500 to 3,000 new teachers a year, said Thierno Diallo, assistant coordinator of the Education for All programme at the Ministry of National Education. While the percentage of children in school doubled (from around 40 percent to 80 percent), he said the graduation rate dropped from 100 percent to 80.
Burkina Faso - rated the least developed country in the world by the 2007-08 UN Human Development Index - has seen steady increases in enrolment rates in recent years. By the 2006-07 school year, 78 percent of children were admitted to the first year of primary school, according to gross government enrolment figures. But the percentage of children enrolled in all years of primary school combined drops to 61 percent. And the percentage of Burkinabé children who graduate primary school is just 37 percent.
In Gabon, 93 percent of primary age girls are in school, but for girls age 15, that rate nearly drops by half to 54, according to the national teachers’ union.
In Chad, fewer than half the students who enter the first year of primary school ever finish. According to Bella, even those who graduate do not always know how to read or do maths.
The reasons behind the numbers are a complicated mix of poverty, traditional attitudes towards girls and unequipped schools - but also, many governments and teachers’ unions say, a shortage of qualified teachers.
Drive to boost quality
Governments are well aware of the problem and, in many cases, are trying to fix it.
In Mali, the government is negotiating with contract workers to integrate them into the civil service. In Guinea, recruited teachers are now required to undergo three months of probation and a take a test. Many countries are offering continued training for teachers already in the system.
In both Burkina Faso and Guinea, national education strategies targeted access to education in the first phase, but will now attempt to catch up on the quality aspect.
“It’s an approach that has its logic,” said Burkina Faso’s Guigma Nassa. “The children need to be in school first.”
“[Now], our battle is for quality,” added Diallo of Guinea.
Still, according to the 2008 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, only one West African country - Benin - is projected to meet universal primary education by 2015.