Out of Ethiopia's shadow
Tanja Mueller reports on Eritrea's attempts to build an education system from scratch
Eritrea, Africa's youngest state, aimed to have 80 per cent of its primary-aged children in school by 2005. But progress in building an education system is going so well that experts believe that all primary children should be in a classroom by then, compared with 52 per cent (47.5 per cent for girls) today.
Eritrea secured independence from Ethopia in 1993 after a 30-year war. But education had to be built up virtually from scratch as the previous system was run by Ethiopian teachers who left when the war ended.
Lessons prior to independence were held in the Ethiopian language of Amharic, which is not native to any of Eritrea's ethnic groups. Older schoolbooks written in Tigrinya, the language of 50 per cent of Eritreans, had been destroyed by the Ethiopians.
Officially, primary enrolment stood at 36.3 per cent, but most of these children lived in cities as many rural areas had no schools.
Since independence a lot has been achieved. Altogether 193 schools have been built, mainly in the most disadvantaged areas. Another 256 schools have been renovated, which often meant replacing a school made of twigs and sacks with a new building.
Eritrea started with zero debt and raised money by privatising 500 companies formerly run by the Marxist Ethiopian state. Consequently it has needed external funds - mainly from the United Nations Development Programme - only for 15 per cent of education spending.
Before independence there were 214 primary schools, 78 junior secondaries and 19 senior secondaries. Now there are 548 primaries, 99 junior and 38 senior secondaries. Yet, in all the bigger cities schools still have to work in two shifts to meet the demand.
"We have to eradicate illiteracy in order to have real and sustained development," said Petros Hailemariam, director general of research and human resources in the ministry of education, "So the government is working very hard at making basic education free and compulsory for all children."
A new curriculum is also being developed. The government is determined not to repeat the mistakes of other African countries who often copied Western curricula. In the meantime, textbooks for all major subjects do exist, and reflect the particular educational needs of the country.
Language training is given a big emphasis. From secondary level onwards, all subjects are taught in English. Everybody starts to learn English at primary school. Also, to acknowledge the cultural diversity of a country with nine ethnic groups and languages, primary children are taught their native language and any other language important to their region.
In the Alnahda elementary school in Keren, a multicultural environment 90 kilometres from the Eritrean capital Asmara, children learn as many as four languages with different scripts, as Abdlqader Abdo, one of their teachers, explains. He is a qualified teacher of English, Tigre (his native language, like that of most of his students), Arabic (the language used for business transactions around Keren) and Tigrinya.
Eritrea also had to overcome a severe shortage of teachers. Intensive training courses for new primary teachers have been provided by the government. At secondary level, teacher shortages - especially in science and computer education - are overcome with well-trained teachers from India. Some foreign non-governmental organisations also send teachers to Eritrea - the biggest group coming from the British organisation Voluntary Service Overseas, which has 63 volunteer teachers out of a total of 128 working in the country.
The long-term aim of the government is to make Eritrea a trade and finance centre for the region. This requires a highly qualified and skilled workforce, so next to languages, an "emphasis on science and mathematics starting from primary level is important", according to Hailemariam.
A long-term technical aid plan was agreed with Singapore, a country seen as a role model in many ways: on one hand for its primary system with its emphasis on science, on the other hand for its overall development strategy.
Like Eritrea, Singapore has a small population of about three million and few natural resources. But it became a rich country through hard work and education - an example Eritrea is following.