Rebecca Tinsley – Written evidence (ZAF0029)


Teaching in Africa: The Challenge

Africa’s schools struggle to provide the continent’s ‘youth bulge’ with quality education. In too many cases, children leave school without reading, writing, computing or maths skills. There are significant levels of underemployment in many countries; but there are also large numbers of unemployable youth, especially young men who have only their muscle to sell. Given a choice between farming and herding livestock under a punishingly hot sun, or joining a rebel militia, speeding around in a “technical” and brandishing an AK47 to get what they want, too many may opt for the latter. In a broad swathe of Africa, from Niger and Mali to Sudan and Somalia, young men with few prospects are easily manipulated and recruited into extremist militias and criminal gangs. Hence, the failure of Africa’s schools directly impacts the security of communities, as well as their long-term prosperity.

The inadequacy of the education on offer in too many African schools is not necessarily because children sit in gloomy classrooms without computers, although many do. The biggest obstacle to learning is the poor standard of teaching. This is especially critical in remote rural areas where bright, motivated teachers have little incentive to go to work, far from their family and friends in the cities and towns. Hence too many schools are plagued by absentee teachers, staff who demand bribes or sex in exchange for grades, or teachers who lack the knowledge or aptitude to teach.


A Unique British Contribution

The UK can and should acknowledge the excellent reputation of its educational institutions, and the widespread desire to learn English as a second language. It is inefficient to bring Africans to the UK to do teacher training, (and, as ever, it would likely be the offspring of the elite that benefited). Instead, the UK should provide local franchises of reputable British teacher training colleges in African hubs such as Nairobi, Johannesburg and Lagos. If a pilot project in these locations is successful, the franchises could be rolled out to other population centres. The pilot project need not entail an expensive building programme: as anyone familiar with sub-Saharan Africa knows, there are plenty of empty buildings that could easily be converted into classrooms.

At the moment, both the British Council and VSO send British teachers to schools across Africa to teach for a limited amount of time. Admirable though this is, it is not a sustainable solution, and does little to develop African capacity. It would be better to train Africans in their own countries to become teachers, supporting them through their studies, in exchange for their contractual undertaking to teach for a given number of years in their native country, preferably in much-neglected rural schools. It would also be worth the investment to equip them with scooters/motorbikes and Skype capability once they begin teaching, so they can keep in touch with family and friends if they are working in remote rural areas.

It is hard to over-state the prestige that still attaches to British educational institutions, and the status that would be enjoyed by African graduates of a local branch of a UK teacher training college. In too many African countries, teachers are badly paid and have low status. By bringing teacher training to African countries, the UK could signal a change in the way teachers are regarded, the establishment of high professional standards, and the quality of people attracted to the profession. This would require buy-in from African governments in the form of higher salaries for graduates, once they begin work. Finland’s track record in raising the prestige of a teaching career is often cited for good reason: it has resulted in some of the best educated children in the world.

There is also a potential benefit to the UK, quite apart from exercising our soft power across the continent in a positive manner. Teachers from the UK could commit to spending a year or more teaching at and running the teacher training colleges established in the pilot cities. Such a project also gives the UK the chance to make a tangible long-term and short-term contribution to our African partners’ futures.

Any notion that this project is neo-colonialist or patronizing is more likely to trouble British academics rather than the majority of Africans who despair of their teachers’ standards. It is unsurprising that parents keep their children out of school when their offspring show little sign of making progress, when they are asked for bribes and if they are concerned their daughters will be pressured into abusive relationships by unscrupulous teachers. Britain has a constructive role to play, attracting motivated and dedicated Africans into the teaching profession, and giving British teachers a chance to work overseas.


Teaching in Africa: The Data

1)   Half of South African children cannot do the most basic maths calculations after five years of schooling. The vast majority of their teachers (79%) have knowledge levels below the level they are ostensibly teaching. 

2015 TIMMS report on mathematics in South Africa


2)   “While there are undisciplined teachers who don’t make the best use of time, the majority are doing the best they can and would dearly love to be more effective. The cause of poor performance, by and large, lies not with teachers but with the teacher education system that produced them. While there were a number of excellent teacher education and training colleges during the apartheid years, recognition of the generally poor state of the sector, together with declining student numbers after 1994, led to its radical reorganisation in 2000. This entailed closing most colleges, merging the remainder with higher education institutions (HEIs), and making initial teacher education (ITE) the responsibility of HEIs……..In-service interventions have limited impact… There is a need to strengthen teacher education…..There are low levels of English proficiency.

Initial Teacher Education Research Project, South Africa. Report by Nick Taylor


3)   A Transparency international report of corruption in education found little evidence that higher pay alone helped raise teaching standards or lowered corruption. Teacher absenteeism was as follows: Kenya 30%, Uganda 28%, India 23% and Nigeria 10%

4)   In South Africa, on average one in ten teachers is absent from the class room. The problem is especially acute in rural areas where almost half teachers may not be present, although claiming their salary.

5)   In a 2018 study by Plan International Uganda, two mobile phones were given to selected schools. Head teachers used them to send SMS messages to district education authorities, reporting absent teachers. This had an immediate impact, significantly improving attendance levels.

6)   6) A Transparency International report on Sextortion was cited at length in an essay, Teaching in English South Africa, in the Journal of Education Vol 30-635-650.

Despite the poor teaching on offer, students are keen to learn English because it is essential for higher education, for an increasing number of jobs, and for mobility.


“Sextortion of girls by their schoolteachers is perhaps one of the most well-documented types of sextortion globally. A 2014 UNESCO report about school-related gender violence across the world found that sextortion — among other types of sexual abuse — is widespread in many regions. In the Central African Republic, a report by the Pulitzer Center found that sextortion is so widespread that “schoolchildren have a nickname for such a predatory practice: sexually transmitted grades”.


According to the report, children across Africa are threatened with “exam failure, punishment or public ridicule” if they reject teachers’ sexual demands. They may also be offered incentives to accept these requests, such as money, gifts, food, good grades, special attention in the classroom and sometimes even promises of marriage……. It is worth noting that sextortion in schools affects not only students. In Honduras, for instance, social and official audits found that sextortion takes place in exchange for teaching jobs. In addition, mothers tend to manage the relationship with a school and are more exposed to the extortion of bribes, for example, for admission of their children to school.”

Transparency International report 2020


An Opportunity for the UK: Providing Prestigious Teacher Training Colleges in African Hubs

The UK cannot compete with China in offering loans and infrastructure projects to Africa. However, we are uniquely positioned to work in partnership with well-respected UK teacher training colleges to create local branches in a pilot programme, in Nairobi, Johannesburg and Lagos. Teachers from the UK would spend at least a year in Africa, providing courses that emphasise the professional development of teachers. These courses would culminate in a certificate or degree enabling its graduates to get a job in their native country that offers better pay and conditions, and with a clear career path.

Having attracted and trained bright, motivated, ethical people into the profession, It is vital to make work in rural areas attractive to graduate teachers: providing scooters or motorbikes so they can commute back to their family and friends in the city at weekends; providing the necessary IT devices enabling teachers in rural schools to keep in touch with their friends and family, so they don’t feel isolated; and giving them bonus pay to stay in rural schools for a set amount of time, after which they have a career path in more prestigious schools in the towns and cities.


Teaching in Africa: Anecdotal Evidence

In my sixteen years working in several African countries, I am struck that in the remotest village, I meet inspiring local leaders of a certain age who tell me they were educated at a school run by the British in colonial times. They attribute the progress they have made in life, or the NGOs they have established, or their respected position in their community, to British schooling. Younger leaders will reminisce about being inspired and encouraged by a British teacher who taught them, thanks to the VSO or British Council.

Anyone familiar with Africa will have had the following dispiriting experience: you are taken to a model school by a government official. You find dozens of children crammed onto benches, sitting in dark rooms, peering through the gloom at the blackboard.  The official explains that they have decreed that all students must learn English and that teachers must conduct many of their lessons in English. You watch as the teacher reads from a text book, or, in more modern schools, from a tablet, using a lesson plan. However, their understanding of English is so poor, it is evident they have little idea what they are telling the pupils. The children sit in mute confusion as the teacher drones on. No one benefits, but the government official is satisfied because everyone is going through the motions.

“I would not send my dog to the schools here.” The Anglican bishop of a city in the lake district of central Africa.

“You, the British, you are my mother. Despite all our disagreements over time, we are still family. You should remember that.” A former foreign minister of Kenya.

“It is utter nonsense that Western education is not ‘the Muslim way.’ The best schools in Kenya are run by Muslims.” An aid worker in the refuge camps on the Chad/Sudan border.


Rebecca Tinsley is the founder of and However, she writes this in a personal capacity.


Received 20 March 2020