Since the academic year got under way in 2004, strikes by teachers have disrupted the education of millions of secondary-school pupils, and the sight of small groups of students roaming the streets when they should be in class has become a common one.
Figures on the number of teachers involved in the stay-aways are hard to come by; what is known is that most of the strikers are staff who have been going without pay -- some for up to two years.
Others have reportedly gone on strike because their salaries are too low. The average secondary-school teacher earns just less than $255 (R1 600) a month -- while other civil servants who have similar qualifications earn more than $500 (R3 200). A new contract encompassing salaries, duties and professional ethics for teachers was drawn up two years ago, but has yet to be enforced.
With examinations for the baccalaureate set to get under way on May 31, concerns are growing that disruptions created by the strikes will severely affect the performance of students. (The baccalaureate is the diploma obtained upon graduating from secondary school.)
“This year was really hard. We didn’t even cover half the curriculum in the basic subjects, and some teachers did not begin class until the second trimester,” said 19-year-old Laure Kamga, a final-year student at the Nkol-Eton High School in the Cameroonian capital of Yaounde.
Similar sentiments were expressed by 20-year-old Joyce Akongo, also in her final year at Nkol-Eton.
“The teachers who were there at the beginning of the year just showed up when they felt like it,” she said. “I’m going back to class, but we were so bombarded with problems that as the exam gets closer, I’m feeling more and more nervous.”
Series of problems
As unfortunate as they are, the strikes are just the latest in a series of problems to plague Cameroon’s public school system -- problems that many date back to 1985 when an economic crisis began taking its toll on the country.
A decade later, the extent to which the education system was malfunctioning sank in, prompting the government to call a meeting of high-ranking education officials.
The gathering resulted in several sweeping reforms, including the establishment of free primary education in 2000. Last year, 61 new secondary schools opened their doors.
Far less promising was what went on behind those doors: according to education officials, almost a third of high-school students had to repeat a grade in 2004. The failure rate for the baccalaureate was 70% (although some hope was given by the fact that this was 5% down on the 2003 failure rate).
About 3,8-million students are currently enrolled in high school.
“The government did indeed begin a new policy, which was to relieve pressure on the infrastructure and teaching loads in the secondary schools. But it failed to deal with the root causes of high exam failure rates,” said Hyppolite Mouaffo, the parent of a student.
For some, these root causes lie in the poverty-stricken backgrounds of many Cameroonian children, whose parents cannot afford to give them educational necessities.
Lack of books
“Schooling begins with books,” says Richard Mandessi, a teacher and member of the National Autonomous Union of Secondary Teachers. “More than half the children registered in school have no access to books because there is no policy [for making books available].”
“They’re distributed unfairly and they’re expensive,” he notes, adding that there is little relief in sight. “Many families are penniless and unemployment figures are soaring.”
But, an education official rejected the accusation that the government has failed to come up with a plan for making books more freely available to children.
“Government subsidises books, which are then sold to pupils at competitive prices,” the official said. “We can’t do more than that.”
Paul Zemdjio, assistant secretary of the Integrated Programme to Fight Poverty, an NGO based in Yaounde, also ascribes the problems in Cameroonian education to lack of money.
“The current problems stem from the dilapidated state of school facilities,” he said.
But, he also blames feelings of hopelessness among the youth and poor governance for the difficulties that are being experienced.
Education officials, for their part, say strike action by teachers was the main reason for the country’s high failure rates last year -- a charge dismissed by Pauline Owona, who teaches French at the Nkolbisson High School in Yaounde.
“It’s too easy to point the finger at teachers so as to make them take responsibility for failures. With our low salaries, what can we do?”
In December last year, Cameroon’s education ministry was divided in two: there are now ministries for primary and secondary education respectively.
But for Mouaffo, such changes mean little.
“The problem [in education] is so far-reaching that the future looks bleak for children of parents who cannot afford to send them to school abroad,” he observes.