Rebuilding a shattered system

Tes Editorial

Rwanda's government plans to educate its future citizens to live together in peace. Reforming Rwanda's school system is a priority for the new Government, which blames the system both for fostering many of the attitudes which led to the genocide and helping to entrench single party rule by the former regime.

One of the first decisions by the incoming minister for primary and secondary education was to suspend the teaching of history and political education, or civics. The claim was that children had been given a biased perspective on their country's development.

According to Dr Gerard Ngendahimana, the civil servant responsible for carrying out the reforms, children were taught from an early age that many of the country's economic and social ills were a legacy of Rwanda's tribal past.

He says: "Before the war children were taught there were two different ethnic groups and that that was the cause of many of Rwanda's problems. We think the problem is not a problem of ethnic background but a problem of political power."

One of the measures of whether the Government is serious about its commitment to multi-party democracy - it has promised free elections within five years - is its plans to introduce a history curriculum free from bias. Given the country's dependence on financial aid, any curriculum reforms will be closely scrutinised by the international community.

The new Government is also planning to teach children about the importance of peace and democracy, stressing the need for children, Hutu and Tutsi, to live peacefully together.

Dr Ngendahimana says: "Everyone will be taught human rights, that everyone has a life and that they cannot kill one another. We want to make children realise they have a responsibility to protect their neighbours and friends."

There are also plans to teach children to question authority and, in secondary schools, to teach them about democratic decision-making.

Other proposed education reforms will also be important in determining whether Rwanda can put its turbulent past behind it and bring about reconciliation.

Between 40 and 50 per cent of Rwanda's pre-war population was literate, about average for Africa but poor for a country united by a single language. The reasons lie partly in the school system, inherited from its colonial past, but has much to do with grinding poverty in what is one of the world's poorest countries (153rd out of 173 countries in the poverty scale in 1992).

Before the war, around 70 per cent of children started primary school at seven, with 60 per cent staying on until age 11. Only about a quarter, however, remained to 13 or 14. Just 2.5 per cent were educated at school beyond 14. A further 5 per cent went to vocational centres for up to three years, with boys learning traditional crafts and girls domestic work and child care.

Competition for places at Rwanda's secondary schools, highly selective boarding schools which were a passport to relative prosperity and prestige, was fierce. Parents were also charged a fee, another barrier to poor families.

But the most controversial part of the selection process was the so-called "national" policy, which allowed the ministry to set quotas according to ethnic, regional and socio-economic background. This discriminated against Tutsi and urban families, who had the highest expectations, and favoured the Hutu-dominated rural areas.

Under the new Government, this policy has now been abandoned in favour of a purely academic selective admissions system. At the same time, national identity cards no longer have to state Rwandans' ethnic background. In future children will be encouraged to regard themselves as Rwandans, rather than Hutu or Tutsi.

The Government has plans to try to reduce the drop-out rate among primary schools and to increase the proportion of children going on to secondary schools, initially to l0 per cent of those who complete primary schooling, with a commitment to further expansion when - and if - resources permit.

Such plans may seem modest. But to achieve even limited expansion in secondary school places, the government acknowledges it will have to move away from its expensive boarding system, at the risk of standards falling. New neighbourhood schools would have to be built in many areas, a process which, even if the capital were available, would take years.

In the meantime, the emphasis is on rebuilding, both literally and spiritually, Rwanda's shattered school system. Many secondaries are still too badly damaged and remain closed. Those that are open are chronically short of laboratory and other equipment. The vocational schools, four of which are due to be renovated with help from Germany, are in the same state.

The new government, which began the slow process of opening primary schools last September, is critically short of skilled teachers. Even before last year's conflict, only 61 per cent of primary teachers were qualified, with the rest mainly older children with a secondary education. The figure has now fallen to 48 per cent.

One source of qualified new teachers has come from the many Tutsi refugee families who have returned since the war ended. Most were educated in Uganda, where more than 250,000 Rwandans have settled after previous persecutions dating back to 1959, and are now under pressure from the Ugandan government to return. Their arrival means some primary and all secondary school children will be offered the chance to learn English as well as French.

Help in "jump-starting" the broken down primary school system has come from Unicef, together with Unesco, the United Nations' main educational agency, which has launched an emergency teaching pack that has brought slates, chalk pencils and copybooks to almost 600,000 children. In addition, Unicef provided a Pounds 20 "sign up" payment to 15,000 teachers and volunteers as an incentive to teach in primary schools.

For most Rwandese children this basic education is all they receive a year after the end of the war. The government has plans for a programme in teacher training, funded by the World Bank with help from United Nations' and other agencies. But such is the skills shortage that progress is likely to be slow.

Thomas Bergman, Unicef's programme co-ordinator in Rwanda, believes the new government faces an enormous task in trying to bring stability and economic recovery to the country. Rwanda is still threatened by an army in exile, currently undergoing military training in Zaire, and the possibility of further ethnic unrest between Hutus and Tutsi in Burundi.

Its chances of success depend on its ability to bring about reconciliation after the horrors of last year. The role of the schools, and a commitment to equal opportunities, will be vital, Mr Bergman says.

"The government has to be sure that there are no books, there are no documents, there is no training, no teaching, where there is any discrimination. If we really want to achieve the goal of equality and no further discrimination, then the education system, the children, is the place to start."

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