My primary school experience in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Candy was born in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She had “two very different experiences” of school as she grew up. The first was an independent, Catholic institution, with higher fees than the average for her area and provided a good quality education. The second only required low school fees and did not provide all the teaching and learning materials she needed.

Her first school was “one of the best in town”. Her teachers were engaging and supportive, and Candy was provided with all the necessary materials to fulfil her educational goals.

However, as her mother made the decision to move abroad, and the family’s financial situation became increasingly dire, Candy was forced to relocate to a new, less expensive school. A keen learner, Candy was distressed by her new school environment.

If you ask me how the experience of studying at that school was I would say outrageous… First of all, the location of the school was not appealing, it was in a very dangerous area. The conditions were scandalous. There were not enough desks for all the children, some were sitting on the floor and there was no school materials provided. I had a very hard time settling and I remember that I used to cry almost everyday waking up in the morning to go to school became a nightmare, something that I used to enjoy doing everyday as I really did love learning literature and doing maths.

Candy was forced to rely further on her network of uncles and older cousins to explain concepts she had not been able to grasp in school.

It is necessary to mention that the education experience in the county solely depends on how fortunate the family is: whether your family is poor or rich will determine the type of experience that you will have, Candy explained.

The varying quality of schools found across the country has contributed to the fact that 73% of primary school students leave without acquiring even basic skills in French and mathematics. Even though the country has committed to ambitious reforms, especially with the introduction of free basic education (gratuité), and progress has been made in primary school attendance, over three million children aged 6 to 11 in the DRC do not get the opportunity to attend school at all.

Since the 1990s, as highlighted in the Spotlight report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo published last month, a low-quality public education has shifted the responsibility of oversight to parents. Parent-volunteers assume the role of teaching assistants and even help fund transport to school and tutoring of children in subject matters that have not been covered by the curriculum. In the national education framework law, parents committees are recognised as one of ten administrative bodies for pre-primary, primary, secondary and vocational education.

Candy recognises the invaluable role her family members played in supplementing her schoolteachers, providing her with the help she needed to complete her assignments. Unfortunately, not all students have access to such support networks. It places an extra burden on parents who often do not have the time, or qualifications, to teach. Equally, the success of at-home teaching depends directly on parental literacy levels and education qualifications, and therefore greatly disadvantages children whose parents have not been able to access education themselves.

Candy was also confronted with an issue common to many students from low-income backgrounds: how to get to school. While she had previously been able to afford public transport services, her new financial situation removed this option. Instead, she was forced to walk the long distance to school, often without breakfast and no money for lunch. School meals are often a lifeline to children living below the breadline and are central to learning outcomes. It is well-known that children cannot concentrate on an empty stomach but underfunded and poorly supplied schools often simply do not have the capacity to provide school meals.

Educational outcomes should not rest upon the financial circumstances of individual families, and it is critical that the government steps up to make the necessary changes to increase both accessibility and quality of education. While the introduction of parent associations and ‘school parent’ programmes provides well-needed help for overburdened teachers and support for struggling students, these initiatives should be regarded as intermediary relief, rather than long-term solutions. The education system needs urgent investment, to provide teachers with the financial incentives, adequate training and holistic support they need in order to deliver a more consistent, higher level of education.

Four recommendations were made in the Spotlight report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo produced in partnership with the Ministry of Education:

  1. Provide the education system and schools with necessary resources.
  2. Prepare and supervise teachers through more effective in-service teacher training and regular school-level inspections.
  3. Clarify and disseminate the vision of education more widely.
  4. Produce and disseminate appropriate textbooks and other educational materials aligned with the curriculum and adapted to reflect local languages.

If the government, with support of its development partners, can make these sustainable and necessary changes to the education system, more children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are likely to experience Candy’s first and positive experience of schooling which will unlock their potential to learn.

The report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo was released as the same time as a continental Spotlight report on primary education completion and foundational learning in Africa – Born to Learn – by the GEM Report, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa and the African Union.

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