Going to school in Africa. Studying the road to freedom

Going to school in Africa. Studying the road to freedom

Loosely inspired by the British school system, school systems in Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana provide a springboard to the freedom to realize one’s desires. Whether it is to travel the world, as for many of their peers, or to stay within walking distance of the family home, continuing the traditions they grew up with.

Going to school means being able to choose, but not always at what age to start. In theory at 6, or in some cases 7, by law, but often it is not the state but the family’s economic conditions that decide. And then there are the exams, which are numerous and much more impactful than we are used to in most Western countries. As the grades received vary, roads open and close that transform the future not only of the individual young person but of the entire family that has invested in him or her. This is a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of small human beings often forced to travel miles and miles of dirt road to enter the door of classrooms that are colourful and welcoming but not fully equipped.

Before opening the chapter on the challenges of African school systems, we have chosen to tell how they are structured. The focus is on the three countries where SeedScience is currently present and operational. 

Going to school in Tanzania

If all goes well, according to official guidelines, a child starts primary education (elimu ya awali) when he is four to five years old and then joins class one at the age of 6 Years. 

An obligation that ends after 7 years, a free right to education in state schools, an opportunity to treasure, hoping to at least be able to afford materials, meals and the absolutely compulsory uniform. 

All classes are held in Swahili, the school year starts in January and ends in December, each year there is an exam to pass to the next, to be taken at different times depending on the class attended. There are two major exams, at standard four and standard seven. Standard four exams test the child so that he can continue with standard five and when he fails, he has to repeat the class. Standard seven exam is for passing and joining secondary education. In this case, for example, have it in September and receive their results in November: they stop going to school for three months, increasing all the chances of dropping out in a very delicate period of transition.

It is not compulsory to continue, on the other hand. Secondary school is not for everyone but only for those who want to and can go. It lasts years in total but is divided by yet another entrance exam. It is divided into two ordinary levels for four years and advanced levels for two years. If a student does not pass the exams to join university, then he can apply for a place in middle schools at certificate and diploma level or join technical colleges. One can enroll in state schools, or in those run by private individuals or religious orders. 

Different is the fee to be paid, but in both cases one does not escape the entrance exam. An obstacle to overcome but not the only one because, in rural areas, there is also that of distance. For those who do not dream of university, in Tanzania there are also vocational schools (VETA), where in two years you learn a trade: mechanic, carpenter, tailor, plumber, electrician, etc. They are not very widespread, nor are they cheap, but they are there and they are pragmatically useful. Especially considering that it is not so easy for a non-wealthy family to send a child to university because of the costs, especially if he or she will have to live the ‘out-of-town life’. 

Students in a secondary school class in Tanzania. Photo by Roberta Baria.

Going to school in Ghana 

The official entry age into the school system here is 6 years, again theoretically, and public education is compulsory and free of charge until 16. Young students in primary schools are taught English and Ghanaian language and culture, as well as a third language, which is French. This subject is optional in most of the private schools in Ghana. Other schools mostly private also learn languages like Spanish and German

These are supplemented by basic subjects such as mathematics, environmental studies, social studies, integrated or general science, vocational pre-skills and technical pre-skills, religion and ethics, and physical activities such as music, dance and physical education. 

Also young learners in Basic two and four write a very special kind of exam after the school’s own exams called the National Standardized Test to weigh their strength and knowledge in Maths and languages. It was introduced into the Ghanaian context during the last academic year. It is strictly not compulsory for private schools but a necessity for the public schools in the country.

After six years and an exam to pass, one can attend Junior High School, the analogue of our middle schools. Often JHS and primary are part of the same building and primary teachers can be ‘promoted’ and work in the next cycle. In the third year, students take an exam to obtain the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) and go on to Senior High School (SHS). Another three years, to be spent studying core subjects (chosen from English language, mathematics, integrated sciences) and more ‘elective’ subject areas, different depending on the programme chosen. There is, for example, Agriculture, General (option between Science and Art), Business or Vocational and Technical. One needs to pass yet another exam, the West African Senior Schools Certificate Examination(WASSCE), to gain access to the university. In Ghana there is a very good university system. Since independence, this country has become a centre of attraction for education in the sub-Saharan region. In fact, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, the second university founded in Ghana, is considered the most important science and technology university in West Africa.

Students in a primary school class in Ghana.

Going to school in Uganda

Not too different from the school systems we have already seen, the Ugandan school system starts at the age of 6 and has compulsory attendance for the first 7. (Preceding it is Kindergarten, from 3-4 years of age onwards, but it is not compulsory, especially in rural areas). The period of primary schools ends with the first national exams, the Primary Level Examinations (PLE). There are four examination subjects: English, mathematics, science and social studies. If promoted, one moves on to secondary school, which is actually attended by few, especially in rural regions. From the age of 13 to 17, students prepare to pass the O level, an end-of-cycle test consisting of seven subjects all of which are examined. From this test, the Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE), one can tell the future of each student and his or her propensities. If experienced constructively, it can be an aid to charting the future path: two years of study, between the ages of 17 and 19, and a final exam, the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE). An A level must be obtained in order to proceed at the University, where students can attend a Bachelor’s degree course for 3-5 years and possibly continue on to Master’s and PhD degrees. Money is also needed and the government offers thousands of university scholarships every year, also to counteract the high level of youth unemployment, which, unfortunately, is also found among university graduates. 

Fortunately, especially in recent years, education has been seen as a solution to reduce poverty. The government, in wanting to ensure quality education for all Ugandans, must address this.

In fact, there is also education for adults who have not reached a certain level of education and who believe they have missed their chance. There are also international schools, generally aimed at international students and those from good families. Here, various types of curricula are taught, with the possibility of choosing between very different courses of study. 

However, the education sector in Uganda faces many difficulties and challenges. The high absenteeism rate of both teachers and students, weak management, shortages of school materials and teachers, especially in rural regions, and excessively large classes 

Therefore, the Strategic Sports and Education Sector Plan (ESSP), designed to make primary and secondary education universal rights and stimulate equal access to university, is welcome. 

This move may be decisive for the future of the country. A similar one has been implemented in Ghana where a shift to a student-centered curriculum is taking place. Tanzania seems to want to take the same direction. In all three countries, there is and will be an increasing need to prepare teachers in applying such a curriculum. And it is here, too, that a project like SeedScience can make a difference. Making a plan that has so far remained ‘on paper’ a reality.

Students in a primary school class in Uganda. Photo by Angela Zurlo.

Article by Marta Abbà.
This article is so accurate and up-to-date thanks to group work involving some SeedScience teachers. Our ‘school correspondents’ are Ronald Felix from Tanzania, Evans Anderson Sagoe from Ghana and Joel Kimbowa from Uganda.

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