All eyes on the knowledge economy

Eugene Kwibuka

Teachers are under pressure to learn English, the new language of instruction, and take a whole new generation of pupils through to the end of secondary school, as the government moves forward with its ambitious education policy

Having made rapid progress in expanding the reach of primary schooling across Rwanda, the authorities in Kigali are now turning their attention to secondary education, with the aim of using it to create a skills base for Rwanda’s future development. They hope that a combination of technical know-how, communication technologies and the use of English as a medium of instruction will drive Rwanda’s transformation into a knowledge-based economy. “We’re far-sighted, we see where the world is going,” said Minister of Education Dr Charles Murigande. “Over the past ten years we have been expanding access to basic education. Now that we have achieved that, we want to push up.”

The aim is to provide, from next year, a 12-year basic education system in place of the existing nine-year programme (six years of primary education plus three years of lower secondary). This is intended to give children in secondary schools a better chance of continuing into the three-year upper secondary level, and so completing their high school studies. In 2009, while primary school enrolment had reached 95 percent, the figure for upper secondary was still very low, at just 13 percent.

Callixte Kayisire, an advisor at the education ministry, said the government has to ensure the children it has helped to start at secondary schools don’t drop out. The recently published Education Sector Strategic Plan 2010-15 states that the priorities for the new ‘post-basic education’ will be the provision of a learning environment that encourages building analytical skills through a learner-centred system, enrolling more students in technical and vocational education and training (TVET), ensuring the use of information and communications technology (ICT) and using English to teach students. The bottom line is the need to provide students with skills that will meet the country’s demand for labour as its economy burgeons and it competes with other countries in the regional East African Community.

Allocating resources for basic and post basic education has, however, already resulted in reduced funding for government- sponsored university students and for public institutions of higher education. Another challenge has been the introduction of English as the first language, replacing Kinyarwanda and French. English language proficiency amongst teachers is still at a low level across the country. A ministry survey in 2009 found that 85 percent of primary teachers and 66 percent of secondary teachers had only “beginner, elementary or pre-intermediate levels of English”. To change the situation, the government has now embarked on teaching English to all teachers who wish to continue their career. “If you want to invest in acquiring a foreign language, you need to invest in English,” Dr Murigande said.

The Permanent Secretary at the education ministry, Sharon Haba, also underlined the view that it is time to switch to English for “all economic purposes, for all communication purposes”. She is currently overseeing an ambitious plan to buy essential books, develop new curricula, hire new English teachers and trainers and assess programmes regularly.

In a country where more than 50 percent of the population are poor, education remains the key to the achievement of better standards of living. And, the government has continued to assess its education strategy within the framework of its ambition to establish a knowledge-based economy by the year 2020.

It was back in 2003 that the government first introduced the innovative nine-year basic education policy. This abolished school fees at the primary school level – which normally takes six years to complete – and introduced a system whereby pupils graduating from primary school can study free of charge for the first three years of secondary school. In addition, lower-secondary classes – previously only available at boarding schools – are now taught at primary schools, which means that children no longer have to leave their homes to advance their education, and parents are spared fees and expenses amounting to more than $300.

Under the nine-year programme, the government pays around $6 per child per year, money that goes directly to the schools where the students study. Parents whose children continue their education after the primary level are encouraged to pay small cash bonuses to motivate those teachers who are responsible for providing pupils with a secondary education.

Samuel Rugambage, who heads the Rwanda office of the charity Compassion International, described the programme as an essential pro-poor education policy. “Few children would go to school before the policy was introduced,” he said. “Today the children, who graduate under the programme, after nine years in school, are old enough to think about creating jobs, helping their communities, or continuing in school.”

The introduction of the nine-year schooling policy meant that, in the years that followed, there was severe space pressure on the classrooms in the existing primary schools, and this forced the government to scale up its school construction efforts and to introduce double-shift classes. One of the major results of the programme so far has been a sharp reduction in the number of children dropping out of school. Net enrolment in primary schools jumped from 72 percent in 2000 to 95 percent in 2009, while the primary education completion rate increased from 22 to 71 percent in the same period.

This means that Rwanda is one of the few African countries to have already accomplished the target for primary enrolment and completion under the UN Millennium Development Goal for universal primary education.

About the author:

Eugene Kwibuka is a Rwandan freelance journalist


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