The dusty playground around Primary School 200 is filled with children. It could be breaktime, except that everyone is sitting in attentive groups. Some pupils are gathered beneath trees; others bake in the heat under a long, shiny sheet of corrugated metal that looks like a bike shelter.
In her job as a teacher-training co-ordinator in Huíla province, 43-year-old nun, Sister Cecília Kuyela witnesses school overcrowding every day. Primary School 200, which serves the poor area of João de Almeida, has 7,348 pupils for 138 teachers and eight permanent classrooms. At peak periods, classes are held in the street. But that is the least of Sister Cecília’s worries.
Amid the hum of singing and recitation, 33-year-old teacher Rosa Florinda is drawing on a blackboard. “She is teaching her second-graders to tell the time,” says Sister Cecília. “She has drawn clock faces on the board but that is not going to work. These children do not have watches. Neither, probably, do their parents. She needs to do things differently,” she says.
Outdated teaching methods are only a fragment of Angola‘s education challenges. When the country’s 27-year civil war ended nine years ago, its education system faced a standing start. Millions of people had moved into cities and provincial towns. The schools that were still functioning in 2002 had been built before independence in 1975 to cater essentially for the children of Portuguese settlers. The curriculum had scarcely evolved beyond some Soviet-influenced tinkering. Teacher training had stopped.
Angola signed contracts with China, trading oil for infrastructure projects. Roads, railways, hospitals and schools were built. Angolan cities became, and still are, building sites. But the realisation loomed that without teachers, schools are just empty shells.
In his office in the provincial capital, Lubango, director of education Américo Chicote, 48, describes a “crisis” that seems without end. “Our biggest challenge is to get children into school but then we have to find people to teach them. In Huíla province we have about 700,000 children of school age and 19,000 people teaching them. At the end of the war we had 200 schools. We now have 1,714 schools but we are still teaching 40% of our pupils under trees, and the school-age population is growing at a rate of 3% per year. Results are suffering. There are 171 days in the school year but there are not 171 days of good weather. We just have to do our best.”
According to Unicef, less than 10% of five-year-olds have access to preschool. Only 76% of children between six and 11 are in primary school. Overall, more than 1 million six- to 17-year-olds are out of school. In poor, rural areas only 38% of children are enrolled, according to Unicef. Chicote says the problem comes back to the lack of teachers. “The shortage is so great,” he says, “that those who do come into the system choose where they will work. We do not have the resources to pay incentives to place them where they are most needed.”
During the war, people with only a grade 3 or 4 education became teachers. Since 2002, the pressure to meet MDG2 and to reduce Angola’s 27% teenage illiteracy rate has seen the country recruit thousands of untrained school-leavers into teaching. Currently, anyone with a grade 10 education can sit the exam to become a teacher. Recruitment is on a massive scale aimed at people from all walks of life, including demobilised soldiers. Angola has 18 provinces. In Huíla Province alone, 1,900 people were hired to teach last year.
In a bid to tackle the country’s education demands while at the same time attempting to accommodate the constant influx of children, Angola has turned to on-the-job training. Sister Cecília is among 350 trainers – all of them experienced teachers and some of them nuns – operating in seven provinces under a £4.4m scheme funded by the European Union and Unicef.
“Most teachers do not have up-to-date skills,” says Sister Cecília, who has been teaching for 22 years. “They may have attended a few seminars but they do not know how to bring their subjects to life. My role is to travel to schools and show the teachers modern methods. They in turn must train at least five colleagues,” she says.
The three-year-old EU-funded Unicef scheme covers two subjects – maths and Portuguese – and aims to bring 9,000 teachers up to grade 9 level. However, the project’s organisers say they are aware that more than 12,000 Angolan teachers fall short of the minimum level.
Chicote says the programme had been a resounding success. “We estimate that around 40% of our teachers are not properly qualified. So far, training initiatives have reached about 3,000 teachers in the province. The scheme needs to be expanded to reach more teachers across more subjects,” he says.
Breaktime erupts at Primary School 200. The dusty compound is suddenly transformed into the lively playground it was always intended to be. Sister Cecília has a quiet word with Rosa Florinda, the teacher who struggled to explain how to tell the time. “I am doing my best,” says Florinda, who has a grade 10 education and eight years’ experience as a teacher. She hopes in due course to be given on-the-job training. “I would love to learn some methods for animating my teaching. But to tell you the truth, in all this dust and heat, if I can just keep their attention for a whole lesson I feel I have done well.”
Alex Duval Smith, The Guardian