Despite increase in the number of schools in Burundi over the last eight years, education standards remain all-time low. In his eight years in power, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza has built more schools than all of his predecessors, but there was no improvement in education standards.
In 2005, Nkurunziza came to power and he immediately adopted a free primary education policy, which was widely welcomed and resulted in the number of children registered for primary school tripling in a year, reports Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency.
As a result of new free education policy, the schools became crowded with children. In some schools, as many as 200 children piled into classrooms built to accommodate a fraction of that number.
“It was one of the biggest rushes to get children into school that we’ve ever seen,” said Johannes Wedenig, UN children’s agency Unicef’s chief for Burundi.
Burundi rapidly ran into the problem of insufficient schools, according to Willy Nyamitwe, one of Nkurunziza’s spokesmen. To encourage local communities to build more schools, Nkurunziza adopted a hands-on approach, visiting around the country to give a helping hand, even making bricks and jumping onto school roofs to hammer down sheets of corrugated iron.
The opposition accused Nkurunziza of neglecting to run the country, but official statistics presents a different picture. Between independence from Belgium in 1962 and Nkurunziza’s coming to power in 2005, 1,723 primary schools and 173 secondary schools were built, according to Nyamitwe.
Since 2007, the government has “built some 2,500 primary and secondary schools… and the percentage of children in school shot up from 59.8 percent to the very impressive figure of 95 percent,” Nyamitwe said.
Unicef has praised “an initiative that allowed education to become virtually universal.” But the quality of that education has suffered. Unicef found that a third of children retook a year of school in 2012, while 38% dropped out. The main reason for the dropout rate is that schooling is not actually free, as parents have to make a “voluntary” financial contribution to the cost of building the school.
Additionally, parents have to buy uniforms and school materials, while more children in school means there are fewer pairs of hands to help with subsistence farming and chores. Burundi is one of the world’s poorest countries, where most families count six or seven children and are unable to afford fees for children’s education.
Teachers’ unions and civil society organizations said the main problem is the spate of reforms rushed in with no preparation. Five years ago the government introduced the teaching of English and Swahili at primary school, refusing to recognize that teachers were already struggling to teach both French and the local Kirundi, the two official languages.
The government has launched a new reform of primary education since the beginning of this school year. Rose Gahiru, the minister for primary education, said the goal is to increase years spent at school from six to nine “in order to have young people able to start work straight away.
But these latest reforms “were also brought in overnight, without teacher training, without classrooms and without teaching materials,” said opposition politician Leonce Ngendakumana.