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Grade 6 students cram into desks at Pimbiniet Primary School in Kenya’s Narok South district. (Josh O’Kane/The Globe and Mail)
Grade 6 students cram into desks at Pimbiniet Primary School in Kenya’s Narok South district. (Josh O’Kane/The Globe and Mail)

WE DAY

Africa’s next challenge: Getting fully schooled Add to ...

At Pimbiniet Primary School, the textbooks are tattered. Students, three or four to a desk, tug the books back and forth, tearing pages as they try to get a glimpse of what they’re learning.

“They can really struggle,” says headmaster Thomas Maritim – though not for any lack of enthusiasm. They just all want the books for themselves. “It can lead to discipline cases where pupils may be fighting for the book.”

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As Mr. Maritim teaches Grade 6 pupils about agriculture, his students lean forward, taking in the importance of different tethering techniques. Enthusiasm infects all of the school’s students, who want to become leaders in their communities when they grow up. “A doctor,” says Grade 8 student Miriam Chebet. “Mechanical engineer,” says Benard Towet, in Grade 7.

The classroom is cramped and the resources thin, but Pimbiniet is one of Free the Children’s 16 beneficiary schools in Kenya’s Narok South district in the Maasai Mara, dotted with farming communities and pastoral families. Yes, their textbooks are torn. No, it’s not always easy to pay all of the teachers. But thanks to their benefactor, the schools have new buildings, clean water, high girl enrolment, and students who aren’t going completely hungry.

Not all schools in sub-Saharan Africa can count themselves so lucky. Just four hours east of Pimbiniet, in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, staff at the Raila Educational Centre has a harder time keeping students in class. The school is in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, and teachers face often-insurmountable odds to keep classrooms full.

All students in the country have access to free primary education, but the realities of life in Kibera regularly subvert students’ chances to break the cycle of poverty. Teaching staff is thin; many young girls get pregnant and leave school, often before Grade 7; others leave school to earn money for their families; and the curriculum has been reduced to subjects that have formal examinations, creating barriers for students who might excel at arts or sports, but can’t cope with traditional rote learning.

“We must thank God for giving us the children, but these children have challenges,” says George Owich Muga, Raila’s deputy head teacher. “Many start [school], but very, very few pupils go the full stretch, which is a big problem.”

The number of primary-school-aged children who don’t attend school in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen by one-quarter since 2000, to 30 million, through the efforts of governments, foreign aid and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Some countries are approaching universal enrolment in primary education, including Malawi, Rwanda and Tanzania. Others are nowhere near that level – including Nigeria, where 10 million children don’t go to school. Across the continent, many out-of-school children are from already-marginalized groups, including girls and ethnic or linguistic minorities whose parents may not feel comfortable with local schools.

Internationally, there are many efforts to help. In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, Canada sent $2.3-billion in aid to sub-Saharan Africa – a number that has only risen slightly for the past few years, but accounts for nearly 40 per cent of total foreign aid spending. Meanwhile, Canadian groups such as Free the Children work to foster environments to make basic education easier to access. And the global community as a whole has set a series of goals to ensure that every child, especially on this marginalized continent, can get a proper education.

But those blanket goals don’t account for the realities faced by many school-aged children in Africa, especially the sub-Saharan region where hundreds of different ethnic groups coexist in more than 50 countries and poverty is rampant. The continent needs a new, non-blanket approach; now, experts say, it’s time to craft goals to target help for the most marginalized children.

A broken promise

The world is on track to fail – for the second time – at meeting its self-imposed deadline to attain “education for all” children worldwide.

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization first launched the Education for All movement at a conference in Thailand in 1990, promising, among other things, “universal access to learning,” by 2000. That year, in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, the group set a new deadline, 2015, for its six major goals, which include universal primary education, a 50-per-cent improvement in adult literacy and improved access to quality of education.

Worldwide, the number of primary-school-aged children out of school fell to 57 million in 2011, from 102 million in 2000, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. While that figure has been cut nearly in half, there was much less impact in sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s widely believed that, once again, these goals won’t be met in time.

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