Education in Senegal: top of the class

By bridging the language gap in Senegal’s classrooms, Dubai Cares hopes to help forge a brighter future for children in the west African nation

In the small village of Niacoulrab, about an hour’s drive from Senegal’s capital Dakar, seven-year-old Abu Fi is getting ready for school. As he leaves, he shouts goodbye to his mother in Wolof, one of more than two dozen languages spoken in the multi-ethnic African state. Each morning, he walks 2km of dusty, winding paths to reach the local village school, where he joins his 77 classmates in learning to read, write and solve maths problems.

Fi’s daily routine is one familiar to thousands of households nationwide, but with one vital difference. He is part of a pilot programme in Senegal that seeks to help elementary school children learn more effectively, by teaching them in both their local language and French. If successful, it will shape the course of the rest of his life.

For a child of school age, being able to understand simple mathematical equations and basic phrases could be the difference between staying in school or joining the 30 per cent drop-out rate Senegal is struggling to reduce. With most children using their local language at home, but expected to study in French at school, the programme’s dual-language approach aims to help students overcome linguistic barriers and prepares them to rejoin the official French-based curriculum.

“I like maths and I understand it better now,” says Fi, as he races to solve an equation on his small chalkboard before his classmates. “My parents can also help me with my homework now because they understand it.”

Among the 12 classes in Fi’s school, only two follow the bilingual programme, a pilot project started by Associates in Research and Education for Development (ARED) in 2009, with the support of the privately-run William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. In Senegal, a country of 14 million, almost half the population ekes out a living at the national poverty line, according to the World Bank, while less than 50 per cent of adults are literate.

“Children are often demotivated by their inability to comprehend” Following a successful trial phase and with backing from the Ministry of Education, ARED sought funding for the next stage of implementation. This is where Dubai Cares, the education foundation launched by the emirate’s ruler in 2007, stepped in to offer its support.

“Dubai Cares is coming in at a critical point,” says the foundation’s chief executive Tariq Al Gurg. “The government has recognised the programme’s value, but to scale it up to a nationwide level, it needs a first step. This is the first step.”

Dubai Cares, which over the past eight years has backed projects in developing nations to give children access to quality primary education, is providing a $1.33m grant to enable ARED to extend the scheme and benefit 10,500 children across the country over a three-year period. With the funds, ARED can roll out the programme in Dakar, the Saint Louis and Kaolack regions of Senegal, and possibly cover wider areas in the future. The money will also allow ARED to train some 300 teachers, and recruit 24 education inspectors, to ensure the expansion runs smoothly.

“In many parts of the world, children find it difficult to absorb content in the classroom due to differences in the languages spoken at home and those used at school,” explains Al Gurg. “Children are often demotivated by their inability to comprehend and keep up with the syllabus, which causes many of them to drop out. Closing this gap is critical to ensuring children stay in school.”

“Impact in education generally takes 10 to 12 years. We are trying to halve that” Worldwide, some 58 million children are out of school; 30 million of which live in sub-Saharan Africa. A further 250 million primary school-age children globally cannot read, write or count adequately. Some 12 million out-of-school children in sub-Saharan Africa live in conflict-affected countries where schools either simply don’t exist, or are too dangerous to attend.

To date, Dubai Cares has reached close to 13 million beneficiaries across 39 developing countries through its various programmes. Their aim is to increase children’s access to quality primary education by eliminating challenges that prevent them from going to school and learning. These efforts include school feeding, where children attending classes receive regular meals, deworming activities, curriculum development, literacy and numeracy through teacher training, school infrastructure as well as water, sanitation and hygiene in schools.

“The target is always to have the maximum number of children and diversity in our programmes, for better and faster impact,” explains Al Gurg. “Impact in education generally takes 10 to 12 years. We are trying to halve that.”

Both parents and students have felt the results of the bilingual programme. Children studying in two languages have demonstrated better understanding of the subjects and achieved higher scores than those under the one-language curriculum. They have improved in both languages and enjoy an 80 per cent pass rate, compared to a 40 per cent national average, especially when it comes to reading and maths, according to Samba KA, chairman of ARED.

“In the beginning, parents thought it might reduce their ability to learn French. Some parents refused and thought it would be a lost year for their child. Now those parents have come back,” says Lisa Slifer-Mbacke, technical director and co-practice area leader for basic education at Washington-based Management Systems International (MSI), which is helping the Senegalese government form a plan to take the project countrywide.

For Besse Nguer, mother of two children studying at the L’ecole Kawabata in Dakar, the programme’s positive impact on one of her sons is evident.

“My son now reads well, learns better and knows maths. His grades are much higher than my other son who is not studying under the bilingual programme,” she says, adding that she would like to transfer her other child to allow him to learn under the same system.

“Parents have seen the results. That is one of the things that we see in terms of the scalability of the pilot project: the community and parents see the difference,” says Slifer-Mbacke.

With fresh funding from Dubai Cares, ARED can increase the number of children under the scheme from 6,000 to 10,500, according to Mamadou Amadou Ly, general manager at the nonprofit. But that is still a drop in the ocean compared to the money needed to support the rollout of the project nationwide.

Slifer-Mbacke is assisting ARED, in conjunction with the Ministry of Education, in developing a practical approach to scaling up the programme across the country. This extension is earmarked for a six-year period, following Dubai Cares’ three-year contribution. The government will require about $29m to reach all elementary schools, targeting 15,000 classrooms with around 60 children per class.

Serigna Mbaye Thiam, Minister of National Education in Senegal, sees the cooperation between the Dubai foundation and ARED as being “critical for the education system” in his country, and a key part of the government’s strategy.

“But we will need a lot of resources,” he says, adding that there are plans to seek approval from the head of state for this long-term approach.

“Developing the plan is really the very first step in scaling up,” says Slifer-Mbacke. One of her main priorities is continuing ARED’s work with communities and parents to create social awareness around why bilingual curriculums are important. The other is funding. “It’s a big advocacy campaign and fundraising campaign at this point,” she says.

For Al Gurg, Dubai Cares’ assistance and its good reputation in supporting education will be critical in attracting new donors to underpin the expansion. “We are certain – and this is what’s been happening with all our programmes to date – that once positive results start coming out, it will send an echo to the world,” he explains.

Dubai Cares has already lent funding and support to programmes in other west African countries, including Mali, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Chad. By improving access to education, the foundation’s wider goal is to tackle poverty and support broader economic growth in these developing nations.

“Dubai Cares has been an active supporter of primary education in west Africa since the organisation’s very beginnings, focusing on school infrastructure, school health and nutrition, as well as water, sanitation and hygiene in schools,” says Al Gurg.

Many of its programmes have focused on improving education opportunities for children, especially girls, in remote areas. In Niger, where the net enrollment ratio in primary education is as low as 54 per cent, the foundation helped marginalised communities in 12 communes, bringing about change in schooling practices affecting girls. Its efforts improved access and retention rates of girls in 16 schools, boosting enrollment levels.

In a bid to strengthen education in rural areas in Mauritania, Dubai Cares distributed 141,000 school kits to students and built 100 school latrines, fenced 100 schools and put in place a hygiene and sanitation mechanism. Further west in Sierra Leone, where 300,000 children are out of school, poor sanitation facilities and shortage of clean water are key hindrances to school attendance, especially for girls. The foundation’s WASH-in-Schools programme, targeting a reduction in water, sanitation and hygiene-related diseases, has benefited more than 10,000 children in 20 primary schools.

ARED, meanwhile, hopes that more schools across Africa can follow the dual-language programme, and is helping them to do so through sharing expertise, methodology and new tool kits. Africa is today home to thousands of native languages, with some countries having inherited western languages from the colonial era.

On her teacher’s instruction, Aissata Kooghomou, 9, scribbles sentences in Wolof in her notebook, before adding her voice to her classmates’ in reciting a French song. At this moment, she is a bridge between two very different worlds – and a bright, encouraging glimpse of their future prospects.

Photo credit: Dubai Cares