– The new school year began at the end of October in Côte d’Ivoire but is getting off to slow start as students struggle to return to study after post-election violence disrupted education in many schools for months.
In the west of the country along the Liberian border, schools between the villages Blolequin and Toulepleu are still closed, and many children have still not returned home after fleeing to Liberia or other parts of Côte d’Ivoire with their families, said Paul Yao-Yao, coordinator of Save the Children’s education programme in Abidjan.
Even in the commercial capital, Abidjan, attendance was low on 27 October when schools reopened. At the primary school in the northern suburb of Abobo Baole only 60 of the expected 500 pupils arrived; some teachers had only 10 pupils in their class. Of the four primary and secondary schools IRIN visited in Abidjan, none had more than 50 percent of their anticipated pupils in classrooms.
Most students in Abobo Baole come from impoverished families and their parents say they will start sending them to school next month said Raoul Glao, the primary school principal. Public schools in Côte d’Ivoire are free – there are no fees for registration and school stationery – but parents still need to buy compulsory school uniforms and pay for administrative requirements, such as birth certificates, needed for enrolment.
Jennifer Hofmann, the education cluster coordinator at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Abidjan, says a slow start to the school year is not uncommon and can spread over two or three weeks. But this year many students are already behind after post-election violence flared in December 2010.
National exam averages plummeted, said Kouadio Méa, director of primary and secondary schools in the ministry of education. In the last school year, the pass rate for the secondary school admission exam was 57 percent, compared with more than 70 percent in recent years. The pass rate for the Baccalauréat dropped to 21 percent from 34 percent.
UNICEF estimates that about 140,000 primary students at public schools could not finish the last academic year. Many private school students were also affected because their parents could not afford to pay for the last term of the school year, Hofmann added. Around 20,000 pupils, mainly in the west, missed their entrance exams for secondary school.
As many as one million of 2.5 million primary school age children were affected by the five-month political crisis, either by school closures or because they fled with their families, said Yao-Yao.
Schools in the north – held by rebels at the time – shut down from January to April after president-elect Alassane Ouattara called on civil servants to stop working with ex-President Laurent Gbagbo. Schools in the south – then controlled by the former government – were closed during April due to the violence.
In a report published in June 2011, UNICEF recorded 224 attacks against the education system, 50 percent of which took place in Abidjan. In some cases schools were targeted after being used for political rallies, or if teachers had campaigned for Gbagbo.
“In the west we recorded cases of retaliation against schools which were seen as partisan during the presidential campaign,” said Hofmann.
According to UNICEF, about 97 percent of public primary schools had reopened by June 2011, and 86 percent of students were attending class, but in the western towns of Divo, Man and Odienné, less than 70 percent of pupils were back in school.
It can be hard to catch up. “I had to study very hard all summer so as not to repeat a year,” said Mamoudou Sako, 14, who has just begun his fourth year of secondary school in Abidjan. Five of his former classmates did not pass the last school year, and three have not yet returned after fleeing the city.
The ministry of education did everything they possibly could to assist students, Méa said. “We extended the school year to the end of July – it was enough for some pupils in some schools, but not for others who missed four months of the year.”
Recovering from trauma
Jeanne Acquah, a literature teacher at the Lycée Moderne in Abidjan’s Treichville neighbourhood, said it was not easy for the pupils to get back into school life after weeks of war. “My students were very stressed when the school reopened last May,” she noted.
Sako, who studies at the Lycée Moderne, agreed that he and his friends found going back to school difficult. “My friends and I felt very traumatised by the heavy artillery shootings and continuing sounds of Kalashnikovs.”
He said they wanted to talk about the experience but the teachers did not want to discuss it. “We just did a minute’s silence then the teachers said, ‘What happened is past, we need to move forward’.”
UNICEF has attempted to address this by training about 5,000 teachers in eight regions to help them identify the signs of trauma in children exposed to violence during the crisis, and promote recreational activities to make it easier for the youngsters to cope.
“Some kids saw their parents being killed or were displaced from their homes,” Yao-Yao said. “Of course it’s traumatizing.”