PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania — The Gambia, which is the smallest country in Africa, is home to just over 2 million people. Of the total population, just over 1 million are citizens of primary, secondary and post-secondary school age. Over the last two decades, great strides have been made in improving Gambian education
That being said, the nation’s underfunded education sector poses problems in regard to access in the face of a growing population. To better understand schooling trends in the nation, here are 10 key facts about the system’s form and function.
- Education in Gambia operates on a 6-3-3-4 system. Lower basic school lasts six years for children aged 7 through 13, and upper basic school lasts three years for students aged 13 through 16. Upon completion of basic schooling, students take entrance exams for three-year senior secondary school programs. Much like in the U.S., four-year university programs are available to those who wish to continue their education and are qualified to do so based on exam results
- Until 2002, lower basic and upper basic programs were less cohesive than they are now. Up to that point, students had to earn a Primary School Leaving Certificate after grade six by sitting for an exam. Officials phased that process out to give more students access to upper basic schooling. Senior secondary education in the Gambia once required recertification halfway through, but similar rationale persuaded lawmakers to streamline the system.
- There is a disparity between the number of lower basic and upper basic facilities in the Gambia. There are 368 lower basic schools in the nation and just 89 upper basic schools. The removal of the Primary School Leaving Certificate made the transition between lower basic and upper basic school seamless. The fact remains that there is a sharp decrease in facilities when it comes time for students to make that transition. According to World Education News and Reviews, “The country’s lower basic school completion rates have increased from 39 percent in 1992 to 66 percent in 2011.” For that reason, disparity in the number of facilities raises red flags.
- Admittance into senior secondary school is highly competitive.There are just 55 senior secondary facilities in the country, and admittance is predicated on passing the Basic Education Certificate Examination in a maximum of 10 subjects. Four of those 10 subjects must be English, mathematics, science and social/environmental studies. In 2012, just 14,000 students took the West African Senior School Certification Exam (WASSCE). The exam is administered during the last year of senior secondary school to determine university admission. Relative to the population of secondary school and post-secondary school-aged students in the country (403,630), the number of students who took the WASSCE was low that year.
- The gross enrollment of primary school-aged children in the Gambia is significantly higher than it is in other sub-Saharan African nations. The Gross Enrollment Rate (GER) of Gambian primary school students currently stands at 97 percent. The regional average GER is 69 percent. That being said, rural areas in the Gambia remain underserved. The country’s Central River Region, for example, has a 63 percent GER. Lack of classroom access in rural areas is a trend that can be traced throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
- Schools across the country reached gender equality in 2007. This achievement was a major victory for Gambian education. Contrary to many other sub-Saharan African countries, the ratio of girls to boys in Gambian classrooms is 103 to 100. Retention remains an issue, however, since just 64 girls out of every 100 boys actually finish primary school.
- Students must get fairly high scores on the WASSCE to attend university. Although there are 32 subject areas available for this exam, testing in five core subjects must be completed: English, mathematics, science, social science and vocational studies. All testing results are compiled into a final transcript that is later sent to universities for review. WASSCE exam grades are heavily weighted since classroom assessments account for just 30 percent of a student’s final marks.
- The Gambia joined forces with the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) in 2003. Through this partnership, the country’s education sector received four World Bank sanctioned grants to address enrollment, school supplies, the creation of more schools and teacher training. In total, these grants amounted to $48.2 million. GPE funding helped the country reach educational milestones.
Between 2013 and 2015, 40,191 more children enrolled in early childhood development, lower basic and upper basic programs. Following that increase, officials delivered 35,633 stationary packs to schools across the nation.
- Program officials worked tirelessly to improve classroom conditions on the basis of curriculum development and teacher training to improve Gambian education. Over the course of that two-year period, 994 more teachers entered the field. Beyond that, extensive training of all educators raised the rate of on-time classroom attendance by teachers from 90 percent to 97 percent.
- Officials also built more schools to cut down on the number of rural areas in which students must walk over three kilometers to the nearest lower basic facility. This change effectively addressed inaccessibility in non-urban areas.Upon developing a more concrete understanding of early childhood reading strategies, the national curriculum changed to better suit students’ needs. National Assessment Tests are administered annually to students in grades three, five and eight. Necessary changes are made to the curriculum based on assessment results. Because this nation is so small, aid organizations have been able to implement systemic changes with remarkable success, especially in comparison to endeavors that often fail to stick elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
Through careful, consistent monitoring, organizations like GPE can continue down this path by positioning education in the Gambia as being a right reserved for all its children.
– Madeline Distasio