Africa's "Community School" Movement Brings Education to Rural Areas

They’re inexpensive, community-based, and have helped change Africa’s educational landscape. Community schools began as an alternative to public schools in poor rural areas about 15 years ago. Today, they’re educating hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would never have had access to education.

Yolande Miller-Grandvaux is a senior educational advisor with the US Agency for International Development specializing in African educational issues.

She told English to Africa reporter William Eagle how a typical community school looked when the movement began: “It was often one room with a literate person in the village who would receive just a little bit of training in literacy in their maternal language and teach kids two or three hours a day.”

A typical school day might last three hours to allow the students time to fetch wood and water and do other chores:

Miller-Grandvaux says “[On] a typical day, children would go to school bringing their own water and their own chair or desk to the school room. They would spend three or four hours learning language arts, math and a little bit science. Often, they would [go to school on Saturday or Sunday; but took the market day off] -- the regular school calendar was not appropriate for them [It was adapted to meet the needs of the children who have to farm the family’s field and do household chores]. “

Parents got increasingly involved and formed active parent-teacher associations: “Parents would come sometime during the day, and check to make sure that the [teachers] and children were in school [learning and teaching]. That was something that had never been seen before,“ says Miller-Grandvaux.

“As a result, attendance became very regular. Illiterate parents would check to see if their kids had done their homework, [thus] providing quite an incentive and motivation to learn…. We saw parents who were empowered enough and proud enough to go to a district inspector and say, ‘Please send us a teacher’ or, ‘We don’t have textbooks; we’ve collected money, but they are not available on the market. Please help us.’ They were ready to collaborate with the educational authorities […to ask the educational authorities for services, and make their voices heard].  In turn, it made the authorities more accountable to the communities they were serving]. It was a new way of collaborating.”

As time passed, the movement has become more sophisticated. Parents are demanding a more rigorous curriculum so their children can have the same opportunities as those in public schools. As a result, teachers have been hired who give instruction outside their maternal languages -- in French or English. Many instructors, who now come from urban areas,  require cash and a  place to stay. Old methods of payment – with bags of millet, rice, or promises of free labor for working the teacher’s land – are no longer applicable.

Donors, including USAID, offer training to communities in how to finance and manage the schools. Local communities and government officials have also begun cooperating more closely. Today, the ministries of education in many countries pay for community school teachers (although Miller-Grandvaux say this has also diminished the influence of the instructors).

Ethiopia, Mali, Zambia, Malawi and Guinea have tried to incorporate community schools into the public system – by, for example, allowing the students to take national exams when they end primary school.

How successful have the community schools been? Miller-Grandvaux says these schools often have better graduation rates than public schools. Some parents have asked for their children to be taken out of public schools and put in the alternative ones.

She says difficulties still remain: “It is hard for communities who do not get enough support from the government to sustain their schools. The community [may be able to] afford to pay for one teacher or two teachers. But they cannot afford to pay for a third teacher year after year. So we see recruitment taking place every other year or every three years. Communities who are poor cannot afford these schools – so there is an equity question. And what do HIV / AIDS-affected children and their parents who can not afford to pay teachers and schools do?”

Guaranteeing the success of the schools also requires greater cooperation from ministries of education, NGOs, donors and PTAs, but when that happens, sometimes mandates and responsibilities overlap and tensions grow.

Yet the movement is thriving. Miller-Grandvaux says the schools were once considered to be “discount” or “second hand” and were often not even included in national statistics. Today, they’ve spread beyond Mali to Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zambia.

Let us know what you think of community schools -- and of other stories on our web site. Send your views to AFRICA@VOANEWS.COM,  and include your phone number. Or, call us here in Washington,DC at (202) 205-9942. We want to hear what you have to say !

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