Education figures belie facts

Education figures belie facts

Algeria Interface, October 2002

Ostensibly statistics show profound official commitment to schooling in Algeria. The true picture, though, is one of overcrowded classrooms, high dropout rates, discrimination against girls and wrangling over much-needed reform says linguist Khawla Taleb El Ibrahimi.

Algiers, October 2002 – At the start of the school year in 2002 there were 7,868,000 pupils: 4,639,000 at primary school, 2,141,000 at middle school and 1,088,000. Teaching staff is around 340,000. A major effort has been made to provide school infrastructure with 3,868 new classrooms opened, 125 primary schools and 44 high schools.

The largest single beneficiary of the 2003 state budget will be the national education system and substantial pay rises were granted to teachers from October 2002. Taken by themselves the figures are impressive. Yet a closer look at the reality behind the statistics reveals a different picture.

And although the nominal value of expenditure on education has risen, it has in fact shrunk when taken as a share of the national budget. In 1990 it stood at 29.7% compared to 13.75% in 2000.

Although the number of children attending school was very slightly up on 2001, primary school numbers were down according to Education Ministry figures. One reason could be the easing of the birth rate, but the most decisive factor was probably rising poverty that increasingly affects whole swaths of the population. Thirty-eight percent of pupils qualify for the government’s “special school allowance” introduced two years ago. Payment of the allowance has however been haphazard and many poor families have not been able to send their children to school.

Girls worse affected
The proportion of children in the 5-16 year old age range is still well short of 100% four decades after Independence. In 1999 the overall rate was 89.98%, with 93.35% of six-year olds attending school. In a society that remains deeply sexist and conservative, girls are the first to suffer from the grave social and economic crisis Algeria has undergone for a decade by foregoing school. And the gap between boys and girls yawns wider in rural areas and the remoter the rural area the less girls attend school. National Statistic Office (ONS) figures in 1998 highlighted a 20% gap.

Another worrying trend to have emerged in recent years is the rise in the drop-out rate. The 1998 ONS figures revealed that over 12 years of school between the ages of six and 18, 73% of pupils drop out. Of the 27% who actually reach the baccalaureate, pass rates vary between 17% and 27%, though it has risen in recent years to around 34%.

Altogether 50% of pupils quit school with no qualification to join the swelling ranks of unemployed. The drop-out rate, which is thought to affect well over 500,000 children annually, is a major contributing factor to illiteracy. Girls are once again worse affected.

The inefficiency of Algeria’s educational system is further thrown into relief by the length of university studies. Students spend between six and seven years at university simply because so many repeat years while teaching staff is woefully inadequate.

In spite of the commitment to building more schools and universities, demand outstrips supply. Class sizes rose to 36 pupils in 2002 as the terrorism further accelerated the rural exodus towards towns and cities.

Wrangling and opacity halt reform
Since the early 1990s debate has raged over the Algerian school system alternately described as a disaster zone, a hotbed of terrorism and failing to meet the needs of a changing society. In May 2000 President Bouteflika began the titanic task of reforming the educational system when he appointed a 160-member committee to outline the main thrusts of reform.

The committee, a microcosm of Algerian society with all its social and cultural conflicting loyalties, made a valiant attempt at reaching a consensus on reform and eventually drafted a report known as the Benzaghou Report, after its president, in March 2001. However it failed to instil any real momentum for change into the top-heavy machinery of the National Education System while the Benzaghou Report has not to this day been published and the committee members have never received the final draft.

There are a number of reasons for the committee’s failure. Primarily, it stood accused of failing to consult widely and imposing a top-down approach to reform. Conservative nationalists also accused it of being “westernised” and “modernist” and seeking to cater for a too wide-ranging constituency of cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic interests. A counter commission came into being to protest at what some perceived as the creeping westernisation of educational reform. In August 2002 it published a manifesto that restated that the basic values of independent Algeria were “Arabicity and Islam”.

Financial strictures versus educational needs
As a result debate failed to see that what was truly at stake was how to adapt Algerian schools to a changes in society and science and to develop appropriate teaching methods. Rather than reintroduce French – the language of the coloniser – into the curriculum, the answer must surely be to make Arabic the core language. And that requires ensuring that pupils master Arabic before they tackle other languages. A wide range of languages – in addition to French and English – must be introduced, while the Berber language, Tamazight – a national language since April 2002 and a taught since 1995 – must be given the resources and means to codify and standardise it.

Such an approach would rob archaic zealots of the language question they use as an excuse to stymie any true reform.

The Benzaghou never put a figure on the huge requirements of lasting reform to the education system. The structural adjustment programme to which Algeria has been committed since 1994 has compelled it to make drastic cuts in public expenditure. How could it undertake reform without jeopardising the macro-economic balances the authorities seem set on maintaining at all cost to satisfy the demands of international monetary organisations?

The government has a difficult task ahead if it seeks to balance the imperatives of a market economy and globalisation with the needs and wished of ordinary Algerians for training and education.

The first step must be to openly involve the people in the stakes and implications of reform if they are to rally behind it. The government must grasp that only comprehensive consultation with all education’s stakeholders can lead to reform.