The realization of The Gambia’s ideal society, as encapsulated in vision 2020, is tied to a ‘well-educated, trained, skilled, health, self-reliant and enterprising population’. A close examination of the vision reveals that it cannot be attained in the absence of a sound education system, programmes and strategies. This accord with the volume of incontrovertible empirical evidence indicating that the quality of life of a people is intertwined with the quality and level of their education. It is logical to deduce from this that the degree of a government’s commitment to improving the lives of its citizens can be determined by the prioritisation of education on its national development agenda. Rationally, therefore, The Gambia Government’s seriousness on this lofty vision can be evaluated, to a considerable extent, from its involvement and intervention in education. This discourse evaluates such interventions during the 1994-2004 decade under the present regime.
The Evolution of Education system in the Gambia
From a historical perspective, formal education in The Gambia can be traced to the colonial era when it had the parochial object of producing clerks, interpreters and people subservient to the colonial administration. No wonder education was a coveted luxury extended solely to sons of Chiefs. It is for such reasons that some educationalists maintain that, in the past, schools emerged to serve political purposes.
During the early post-independence era-from 1965 to the mid 1980s – the Gambian education system went through several phases, with attempt made to extend educational services at the lower basic (primary) level to the people upcountry, where illiteracy generally predominated in many communities. However, it was not until 1990, following the Jomtien declaration on education which sought to provide education for all by the year 2000, that efforts were redoubled to expand the school system. The fact remains, though, that from the year of Independence to the eventual overthrow of the last government, no high school was built. Furthermore, that over forty percent of The Gambian school-going age population were out of school makes it difficult to credit the last regime for having done enough to provide education for every citizen or to acknowledge that the approach and strategies they adopted were appropriate, well conceived and effective.
In contrast, it is evident that the last decade has been marked by an unprecedented innovative reconstruction of the education system, and the impact speaks for itself. As highlighted here, during this period, the system underwent a process of structural transformation propelled through three major interventions: financial investment, human resource development and policy shifts.
On the Threshold of Universal Primary Education
The mid-term review in 1995 of the 1988-2003 Education Policy provided the opportunity to conduct a thorough diagnosis of the system and, accordingly, extrapolate the inherent weaknesses, reinforce the strengths, reorient the sector and energise it through a comprehensive Master Plan, a Public Expenditure Review and an Investment Programme.
Figure 1 University of the Gambia
The result is that during the 1994-2004 period, eighty-eight (88) Lower Basic Schools, twenty-four (24) Upper Basic Schools, Thirty-eight (38) Basic Cycle Schools were constructed. In fact, the Lower Basic School facilities increased by 55%, whilst the Upper Basic Schools soared from 22 in 1993/94 to 137 by 2004. Whereas before this only forty percent of the pupils who took the scrapped grade Six terminal examination gained entry into secondary school, today, there is a transition rate of 100% from the lower basic level to the upper basic level.
The number of senior secondary schools has equally risen from 12 to 42 over the ten-year period. Five of the newly established schools are government schools and 16 of the rest are grant-aided, thus raising the transition rate from the upper basic education level (to this level) to 59%. A computation of the enrolment figures shows that enrolment in the lower basic schools rose by 65%, by 236% in the upper basic (from 17,899 to 60,233) and by 93% in the senior secondary schools.
The same period marked the official incorporation of Madrassa education in to the overall educational development arena. Schools in this frame now deliver a synchronized curriculum (syllabuses and textbooks) with that of the conventional schools. The linkages between the two categories of schools include posting English teachers to the Madrassas. On account of the enrolment in both school types, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for the country stands at 91%, implying that only about 9% of the school-age children are theoretically out of school.
The age-old skewed distribution of schools in favour of the urban area has had an unfavourable effect on enrolment and literacy rates, and on school attendance, retention, and performance and completion upcountry, especially as regards girls. However, such regional and gender disparities have significantly narrowed. The special packages designed to augment girls’ education – an aspect that hitherto left much to be desired – through the Scholarship Trust Fund and the President’s Girls Empowerment Scheme have made ‘free education’ for all girls a reality. Tuition is free from Grade one to Six for all pupils, and dissimilar to the past 6-3-3-2 systems, interjected at each segment by a terminal examination, the current 9-3-3 system offers nine years of uninterrupted education.
In view of these achievements, The Gambia is at present one of the few African countries on the Fast Track Initiative programme led by the World Bank – i.e. countries likely to attain ‘universal primary education’ (100% enrolment) by 2015 if given the requisite support. This is no mean achievement, and it is directly tied to government investment in education through projects and an average budgetary allocation of about 22% per annum since 1994.
From Dream to Realism
At the tertiary and university level, there are well-defined strategies to provide and develop technical knowledge and vocational skills in order to respond to the human resource and employment needs of the country. The much lamented and perennial entrepreneurial gaps that continue to preoccupy the public and private sectors are being addressed in various ways. The creation of the National Training Authority, for example, is intended to institute a progressive framework for purposes of training and maintaining a reservoir of qualified craftsperson, technicians and other skilled personnel as well as expanding the service sectors, among others. Fused with all these is the development of an Information, Communication and Technology education policy and programme. In consequence, a reasonable number of schools now have computer laboratories, and it is beginning to surface that the ongoing distance learning education programme is being enhance immensely.
Whilst there is much wisdom in according basic education priority over other constituent areas, it is unreasonable to believe that a country can maintain a well-trained human resource based in the absence of a tangible and sustainable higher education programme, particularly in view of the sophisticated technological demands of the epoch. The introduction and development of university education in the country is, therefore, a phenomenal achievement. It is interesting to recapitulate that through what began as an offshore extension programme of St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada (viewed with some degree of skepticism), Gambians had access, for the first time, to higher education at home. In hindsight, it is paradoxical that programme transposed into the young vibrant University of The Gambia with four faculties, including a medical school. The first cohort of students graduated this year, and the institution continues to defy all odds to the bewilderment of the cynics. Indeed, University education in the country is no longer a dream, and about 490 students are on government scholarship, totaling D1.5 million per annum for a four-year period.
Prior to the interventions outlined above, The Gambia had focused largely on primary education and, to a lesser degree, on secondary education to the detriment of other equally important aspects of the system. The new approach conspicuously deviates from this. Education is now principally and realistically provided from the perspective of the primary beneficiaries (i.e. the learners and communities) and not the planners’ or experts’ perspective. A participatory, holistic and an all-embracing approach marks current efforts at policy formulation and implementation; curriculum development and delivery; and management and governance procedures. The consequence is that the mid-term review of the policy for the 1995-2003 period and the emergent 2004-2015 Education Policy are outcomes of a collective endeavour.
The adoption of the ‘expanded vision of education’ leading to the amalgamation of the formal and non-formal education sub-sectors; the close linkages between the Madrassas and the conventional schools; and Government’s direct involvement in early childhood development and education are directed at building and sustaining a sound and an all-round education system. These are major policy shifts aimed at catalyzing a positive reorientation of education in The Gambia. Change for the better, creation of opportunities for all and developing the potential of every Gambian form the bedrock of revolutionizing governance, management and service delivery in The Gambia.
A study of the school system through the education Public Expenditure Review indicates that, in the past, investment in education inadvertently favoured therich. This has led to the introduction of policies geared towards reversing such trends. Thus, tied to national poverty reduction mechanisms, measures have been adopted to minimize educational cost burden. This explains why differential interventionist strategies have been instituted in favour of people living in areas considered less advantaged vis-à-vis access to social/educational services.
Challenges and Future Directions
In addition to the national instruments, targets set within the education sector are directly anchored to the Education For All goals and the education-related Millennium Development Goals. There is every indication that given the current implementation levels, The Gambia is on tract towards attaining these goals.
Recruitment of teachers for the schools, however, continues to pose a problem. In a bid to respond to the demand for quality teachers, The Gambia College has doubled its intake of student teachers from 250 to 500 at both the Primary Teacher’s Certificate (PTC) and Higher Teachers’ Certificate (HTC) levels. Other tertiary institutions complement the college’s efforts. The University of The Gambia, for instance, admits about 45 experienced heads of school annually on their B.Ed Educational Management programme. All of these are beginning to prove fruitful and, thus will be intensified together with the ongoing continual human capacity building process of the sector personnel.
Closely linked to teacher supply and training is the issue of quality. Quality education has been a concern, as in all parts of the world. Consequently, even though it has attracted a lot of inputs, quality education continues to be a challenge with which we must collectively and squarely grapple. The Standards and Quality Assurance directorate at the Department of State for Education will work closely with the proposed National Board on Quality Assurance and the Professional standards Board to improve upon quality across the system. The shift away from a centralized to a decentralized process of educational management and the empowerment of communities to participate in school development are intended to address quality, efficiency and effectiveness. Armed with the Fast Track Initiative Plan, the Education master Plan, the National (Education) action Plan and the Millennium Development Goals, The Gambia is poised with clearly defined frameworks to develop a more responsive, relevant, appropriate and quality education programmes that run the pre-school stage to University education level.
There is a dialectical relationship between the development of education and of societies. Each is dependent on the other; thus, developing a learning society has a reciprocal effect on the education sector as well as on other sectors and the wider community.
The vertical and horizontal development of the education system and the multi-dimensional reforms that shade it, coupled with its transformation into a pacesetter in Sub-Saharan Africa attest to the earnestness with which education is taken in the country. This decade stands out distinctively as one which witnessed a great deal of educational success and progress. If investment in education is a benchmark to gauge a government’s honest intentions of bettering the circumstances of people, then there is reason to commend The Gambia Government for taking the lives of Gambians at heart. The President’s famous slogan that for education "the sky is the limit" is certainly not mere rhetoric. Gambians can, therefore, jubilantly celebrate the end of the 1994-2004 decade with satisfaction and optimist, as they look forward to the future.