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Friday, September 14, 2012

Interview with State Minister Harebamungu

“Rwanda has come so far. It’s a country coming from a terrible genocide, and a country where we had to accommodate our children”
In a continent where more than 30 million children are still out of school, the tiny east African country of Rwanda has provided shone out as a success story. Emerging from one of the most brutal genocides in modern history, the nation is on track to meet the second Millennium Development Goal, which targets universal primary school enrolment. But it has ambitions far and away beyond those laid out by the United Nations.
In Kigali, a capital city so far removed from some of its regional counterparts that you could be on another continent, Mathias Harebamungu, minister of state for primary and secondary education, is practically buoyant in his optimism.
Showcasing Rwanda’s achievements, the former teacher reels off statistics at speed. In 1994 – the year of the genocide - 900,000 children were attending primary school, he tells This is Africa from his ministry office, in the city’s palm-lined Kacyiru district. Today that figure stands at 2.4 million - a net enrolment rate of almost 96 percent.
In fact, at the primary level more girls attend primary school than boys in Rwanda, and more and more of those children are completing basic education too. More than three quarters now reach the end of the primary cycle, as opposed to 38 percent in 2002. That’s fed into the expansion of secondary education – from no more than 50,000 students in 1994, to half a million today.
“Rwanda has come so far. It’s a country coming from a terrible genocide, and a country where we had to accommodate our children,” Mr Harebamungu says. With infrastructure destroyed and populations displaced, getting children back into the education system was a “big challenge”, he says. “But when you have a strong leadership, when you have political will, when you have a population which is committed, organised, mobilised, sensitised, we can achieve all these elements.”
Most of these gains are attributable to the country’s nine year basic education programme, which came into full force in 2009. The scheme abolished school fees for primary and lower secondary students and prompted investment in school infrastructure, with lower secondary classes built within primary schools to reduce dropout rates. The government increased its spend on education to 17 percent in 2010, and while the programme has been supported by some donors, including the UK’s Department for International Development, that this is a community-driven, “home-grown solution” is a matter of pride in Kigali.
Faced with a budget deficit of RWF27bn ($45m), and unable to fund the private sector’s creation of schools, the government adopted an “unconventional method” for school construction and management, which decentralised much of the process.
“At the national level we supplied cement, iron bars, some corrugated iron sheets, but other materials, even the man power, was paid through the mobilisation of the population,” Mr Harebamungu explains. “Some people brought stones, others produced sand, the army and police intervened with transport of materials. And it was possible to meet the immediate needs in four months.”
Based on the success of nine year basic education, this year the government began rolling out a 12 year equivalent. Meanwhile, the country turns its attention to learning.
“We are now sure that our children are accommodated in terms of access, and now there is this issue of quality,” he says.
The government has a number of strategies at play. In 2009, Rwanda decided all lessons from Grade 4 onwards should be taught in English to better prepare students for wider employment and to support Rwanda’s global integration. The government embarked on intensive language training and textbook distribution. Early this year, it launched a school-based mentoring programme to support teachers in honing English language skills and better teaching techniques. By the end of the year, 1000 mentors will be deployed across the country.
Next year will see a review of the school curriculum, aiming to ensure that lessons are instilling the right skills and competencies in children – rather than just teaching them for end of level exams. “We must make sure it is a curriculum that tackles all corners,” Mr Harebamungu says.
Meanwhile, a national learning assessment system is being designed to measure improved learner performance in literacy and numeracy in the early Grades. A new scheme ‘Rwanda Reads’ hopes to establish a culture of reading to strengthen literacy skills. The government is also developing an ICT education strategy, focusing on a model similar to that used by the One Laptop per Child scheme.
As part of efforts to create so-called child friendly schools, schools are developing “girls’ corners” Mr Harebamungu explains, where young girls are “briefed on their biological changes” to try to reduce dropout rates.
How important have international frameworks like the Millennium Development Goals been in driving this progress? Certainly, they instilled necessary ambition, the minister says. But Rwanda seems to have a bigger vision for itself.
“Rwanda is a country with a Vision 2020, and an education sector strategic plan, and a seven year government plan. So we focus on MDGs but we have other targets above those,” he says.  “If the MDGs are focusing on universal enrolment for primary education, we have jumped to nine year basic education – and now we move to 12 year basic education. We plan ahead, not backwards. Although MDGs are a kind of reference for a limited time, a country which has a vision should go beyond that.”
What’s next? Mr Harebamungu wants to see strengthened tertiary education systems. “That is why we have developed an open university”, he says, referring to the new open and distance learning department at the country’s national university.
He wants to see a greater focus on technical and vocational education and learning (TVET), to meet the demands of the labour market. “Our target is that we need to achieve 60 percent enrolment in TVET by 2017. It’s now at 38 percent,” he says. He’d like to see that element incorporated into post-2015 international goals: “because we talk about general education, but skills development is the key to have people who are not job seekers, but job creators.”
Progress has been fast in this recovering nation, and development partners, including the likes of Unicef, have seemed satisfied with the efficiency of the government in implementing change. But Rwanda – the most densely populated country on the continent - has a long way to go if it is to support its fast growing youth population. That process won’t be helped by the current freezing of aid disbursements by Western governments including Germany, the UK and the US, based on UN allegations of government support of rebels in eastern Democratic of Congo; refuted by President Kagame.
 Despite challenges, it’s hard not to find the Minister’s enthusiasm contagious. He smiles: “I’m so confident that everything is possible. It’s a matter of commitment, it’s a matter of good leadership, it’s a matter of political will.”

Source: This is Africa

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