Eritrea's education reform plans face major hurdles
Ravinder Rena
Special to the Middle East Times
September 11, 2006

MAI-NEFHI, Eritrea -- In its discussion of the educational program, the Eritrean government has made a commitment to make education a top priority. It is to be noted that after independence, there were about 186,000 students in Eritrea; but the number significantly increased to 650,000 in the year 2005. Since independence, the enrollment is reported to be about 40,000 a year.

Eritrea is now embarking on a major expansion and overhaul of its educational system. It aspires to introduce universal primary and middle school education for all its school age population, with a widely expanded integrated high school education, with a core as well as an enrichment curriculum with the flexibility to prepare students for university education as well as employment.

Also on its agenda is the establishment of a wide network of vocational schools and community colleges and up to eight universities located in various regions of the country, with a total enrollment of up to 20,000 students.

It is seeking a flexible system for people to move from schooling to employment and back to school, if they so choose.

It is well understood globally that the threshold of 75 percent expansion of basic education and literacy is essential to become self-sustaining. Official statistics in Eritrea put the literacy figures at around 40 percent.

The basic question of the quality of education on all levels, including higher education, technical education, and management, remains a matter of concern. In each of these, what makes the prime difference is the training and professional preparedness of those who teach. Hence, the quality of education should be addressed.

It must be conceded that great expansion has taken place as a consequence of the efforts made in Eritrea to extend the outreach of elementary education to all particularly after independence. Alternative strategies like open schooling, non-formal education, alternative education, and others have to be attempted in Eritrea.

For the first time in the country, the ministry of education has started open distance learning in March 2006 with the cooperation of the University of Asmara. The program started with about 600 junior school teachers holding certificates; they wanted to upgrade them to diploma level.

Those teachers have come from all the six zones of the country for the three-year program, which is aimed at upgrading the proficiency of teachers and offering quality education.

The second batch of the open distance learning program is expected to start in 2007 and will target the remaining 1,400 certificate holding junior school teachers.

One concern that has emerged over the years is - what are the children learning in schools in the first five or eight years? It is reported that more than 50 percent of children drop out before completing eight years in school.

Needless to say, most of these children are from the poorer sections of the society particularly from rural areas and urban slums of Eritrea. Hence this is the group that deserved special attention not only at the policy and planning stage but also at the implementation level.

One often comes across the real situation, when one visits the schools in rural Eritrea. There are more children with fewer teachers, a few classrooms, no toilets, and no drinking water.

A majority of the schools are still in the same situation of deprivation and deficiency as they were 30 years ago. Therefore, the villagers and the concerned authorities have much to talk about - teachers, building repairs etc.

There has been expansion and upgrading in quality and efficiency in the education, but only sporadic. The drop-out rates remain alarming, non-enrolments are substantial, and failures at the matriculation level remain high. Books may be in short supply; and teachers may not be available or may not be teaching due to other assignments.

Drop-outs are found to be increasing despite the emergence of new schools and teachers. Hence, we need to learn from experience and be prepared for changes without avoidable delay.

The traditional Eritrean education system was destroyed by the colonizers in a planned manner. In order to develop the education in Eritrea, it may be suggested that the Eritrean government opens schools in every village, to be managed and sponsored by the people and the community of that village.

Since the independence of Eritrea, most of the schools have been run by the government. Although there are very few private schools in the country (only afforded by the affluent), government-run schools have been increasing. But expansion meant fewer resources.

It is a known fact that the development of any country largely depends on its education sector. And for the education sector we need strong, dynamic, hardworking, and confident teachers and students who can lead the nation through the path of development.

However, the pressure on teachers is increasing; it would be difficult to urge them to put their heart and soul into their job - managing a classroom with 40 to 70 students is not the easiest of tasks.

Little attention is given to the needs of the teachers. The space available for teachers in the staff room is often inadequate. Basic facilities such as toilets, drinking water, and canteen facilities are not available in some schools.

Unless some of these problems are solved, the teachers may not feel like rendering their valuable services efficeintly. Financial incentives for the staff in schools, unlike industry or business, are nonexistent.

Hence, it may be suggested that every school in the country can bestow a best teacher award at the end of the academic year or at least a letter of appreciation by the management to those who have used innovative teaching methods to motivate the teachers.

The management can relieve some of the tension and anxiety associated with teaching by being understanding and sympathetic to the teachers as well as providing continuous education, training, upgrading skills, and opportunities for self-development.

The management committee members can give a free hand to the teachers in planning and decision-making to avoid apathy and resentment among the teachers. The more responsibility the teachers are given, the better their performance will be.

The management has to realize that unless the teachers are motivated and committed, the quality of teaching could be below par and consequently, the students could suffer by the lack of enthusiasm of the teachers.

Dr. Ravinder Rena is Assistant Professor of Economics, Dept. of Business and Economics at the Eritrea Institute of Technology