Archive picture; School children in Gambia

Having read a number of articles in the media at the onset of the last rainy season about the poor performance of school pupils in The Gambia in recent years, I feel constrained as a concerned national to offer a couple of creative ideas as to a way-out.

My primary motivation being the simple fact that unless we put our educational house in order, all the other developmental dreams that we habour for the future development of the country in the broad sense of the term (economic, political, social, cultural, industrial and scientific) shall remain but pipe-dreams.

Different theories as to possible causes have been put forward by the authors of these articles. These include poor working conditions for teacher, low wages, lack of sufficient motivation on the part of both pupils and teachers, pupils’ poor command of the English language and the lack of adequate facilities in our basic and secondary educational institutions.

Admittedly, these are legitimate and relevant issues that have to be reckoned with in our search for a lasting solution to the problem, and it is my hope that the powers that be are taking note. In any case, I am of the view that tackling the issue of teachers’ remuneration and working conditions plus equipping schools with adequate facilities should be taken as the first step towards remedying the situation.

This is exactly what Singapore has done decades ago, and the results have since been staggering. In that country, the political will to elevate the teaching profession to the same level as the others was one of their founding father’s strategies in terms of lifting educational standards in their educational institutions. Accordingly, teacher’s salaries were raised to a level that is comparable to the salary scales of similar professions. Added to this, a law was passed that makes it mandatory for all teachers to be graduates in their respective subjects.

Needless to say, at this moment in time, introducing such a policy in The Gambia is clearly unrealistic given the low level of literacy in the country, which is not the same as saying it should not be included in the toolbox of our policy maker for utilization in due course. The immediate consequences of the policy were two-fold. In the first place, teachers’ motivation rose to hitherto unseen heights and pupils’ general performance has likewise risen significantly ever since – not least in natural science subjects. Singaporean pupils have since been “outperforming” their European, Australian, and North American counterparts in natural science subjects according to a number of recent comparative international research studies in this regard.

In respect of pupils’ poor command of the English Language, I must admit that I am not totally in disagreement with Pastor Forbes suggestion in recent months that our schools should go back to the basics in terms of restricting the use of local languages in school yards around the country. Indeed, this recommendation looks harsh on the surface, but I’d argue that it is a matter of the end justifies the means. We would be fooling ourselves as a nation if we think we are proficient in our official language.

My personal opinion on the matter is that Gambians are amongst the former British subjects on our continent who are still very weak in terms of our command of the English language. In fact, the situation has become worst in recent decades, hence the poor performance of our pupils, who have to learn almost everything in a language that they may not be proficient in throughout their basic and secondary education.

Indeed it has not always been like that, as The point pointed out in one of its editorials about half a year ago. But why have standards fallen in recent years? The answers are numerous but one that stands out is our propensity to over-use local languages even in formal educational settings where English would be more appropriate. Skeptics would say: But why English when it is not the mother tongue of over 99% of school pupils? The answer is simple. English has come to stay on our shores as it has been ever since Kombo St. Mary’s area (the area that lies between  Banjul and Abuko alias “Toubabubanko” in Mandinka) became the “first” British colonial possession on our vast continent in the year 1783 – seven years before South Africa became the second of its kind on the continent.

Furthermore, English has in the meantime overtaken both French and Spanish as the “choice” lingua franca of the world. Unlike many other countries who have embraced English as theirs while they in due cause have never been part of the empire, we are fortunate that the language has been with us for such a long time so that it should be much easier for us to re-master the language within a short space of time. Our re-mastering of the English language will undoubtedly bring us a lot of benefits as a nation. One of this being an immediate improvement of standards since pupils in our schools have to learn almost all the other subjects in English, due principally to enhanced comprehension of the subject being taught at any given time.

Thirdly, this improvement in our command of the English language would also affect the demand for skillful Gambians professionals both at home and in the wider world in a positive direction. On the whole, this will make it easier for us to interact with ease with the wider world. It is in this regard perhaps important to note that many multinational corporations in the so-called “first world” have in recent years adopted English as their official language – no matter where they have branches in the world.

Therefore nations of the world whose nationals have been recognized as proficient in the language shall have a competitive advantage over all the others – and it is my hope that the Gambia shall soon join this group. That would however not be the case if we were to totally abandon English as a language of instructions in our schools in favour of one of our native languages without a thorough preparation. Instinctively, we would be worse off should we do that overnight having in mind the fact that our command of our official language has been pretty poor in recent years..

Note, I have at no time argued in favour of the permanent exclusion of a new official language from amongst our native languages in the country. Far from it, sooner or later one of our major native languages should join English as a co-official language – thus killing two birds with the same stone. Actually, that should have been done decades ago! I would love to be able to write Mandinka at the same level as English and Danish in the future. In any case, that has to be preceded by thorough preparations of a technical nature on the part of the authorities. South Africa has been doing that since 1994 so that Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans etc. are today co-official languages with English. For the moment, however, we can ill-afford to do completely without English since it has been part of our DNA as a modern nation-state for centuries. In the same vein, abandoning the language at this moment in time without a viable alternative would be tantamount to throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

Last, but not least, it is my considered opinion that authorities at the ministry of education have overlooked one very attractive route towards enhancing the performance of our school pupils for over five decades. That is using Armitage Senior Secondary School as a viable model for similar government boarding schools in each and every region of the country.

Here and there, some of the schools that exist in a particular region could be converted into residential schools.  Some of these should specialize exclusively in science and technology. Indeed, the facts on the ground call for this approach for a couple of reasons. Needless to say, most ethnic groups in The Gambia are divided into clans (“Kaabilo” in Mandinka”) with each Kaabilo having a ancestral home. These ancestral homes are typically estates which serve as joint settlements for male members of the clan including their respective wives and children. Some Kaabilos consist of a couple of dozens while others have over a hundred members.

My experience with such settlements is that they constitute one of greatest stumbling blocks that impede the entrenchment of a “culture of book learning” in our society. In the first place, they are typically over-crowded and full of noise from morning to evening due largely to the fact that there are often a large number of small kids among residents. I am sure readers will agree with me that situations like these are far from conducive to book learning – especially in the absence of good role models in this regard.

Further, what is typical in terms of good role models is that educated members of the Kaabilo are those who are the first to move out of such settlements, leaving the least literate ones behind – often illiterate, semi-literate or functional illiterates. Needless to say, such a trend is a recipe for low pupils’ motivation and poor academic performance since the kids lack good role models – academically – to look up in their immediate surroundings, which universally is one of the pre-requisites for kids’ success academically. Therefore, the risk that they in due course choose wrong role models amongst other kids rise – typically fun-loving undisciplined kids with very low levels of motivation academically.

Boarding schools have an incredible capacity to compensate for this unfortunate state of affairs since teachers and pupils who perform well academically typically become role models for the other pupils in the school yard. To boot, such residential schools have as a rule always had a set of internal rules that cover every aspect of life on campus; thus enabling teachers and older pupils to become better mentors for pupils in need of tailor-made couching with a view to improvements in academic performance.

Indeed, it is about time we as a nation embraced the idea of more government-owned “residential schools” along the lines of Armitage, a wonderful template that has been with us for over ninety years. The school has clearly been providing value-for-money to the state in as many years. Better late than never!

by Saikou M.D. Manneh