People are singing new songs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Heard first on the radio and echoed in schoolyards, fields and markets, these songs indicate renewed hope and interest in education for a region that has been severely affected by years of war and instability.
In the Congo, students face two major problems: education quality and education cost. As a result of years of conflict and lack of financing from the government, there are few teachers, and fewer still with adequate training. Schools operate primarily on fees collected from parents, so many students either enroll late, drop out, or do not attend at all. To overcome these challenges, EDC’s International Education Systems Division is implementing the PAGE (Pour une Approche Globale de l’Education) project, funded by the US Agency for International Development with a special mandate to reduce the burden of school fees and promote access to quality education. Since 2005, PAGE had been pointing the way to a future of increased student learning, educational affordability, and equitable national education policy in the Congo.
Now, communities have many reasons to sing. Catchy new songs fill the air from an Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) program for primary schools. Interactive radio instruction is at the core of improving primary education quality in the Congo, and PAGE produces and broadcasts daily radio lessons that reach even the most remote and resource-poor schools in the two program provinces. The radio program, titled “Apprenons avec Matahata” (Let’s Learn with Matahata) features a cast of characters who live in a village and encourage students to learn through a variety of stories, songs, and teacher-led activities. Students are particularly fond of Matahata, a mischievous goat who talks, sings, and learns alongside other characters.
“The [radio] programs are like rays of sunlight,” says the Inspector for Primary Education in Bikoro, a remote northern district near the Congo River. Others agree; Madame Ntibanura, director of a primary school that has benefited from the lessons, says the broadcasts constitute a “schooling revolution” in her classes.
PAGE goes beyond the classroom and into communities, where activities are conducted to reduce the financial burden of sending children to school. The project helps strengthen parent associations to improve school management and trains association members to conceive and conduct income generating activities such as livestock breeding, community gardens, and fishing cooperatives. The proceeds from these activities are used to finance rotating credit schemes that ensure all association members have access to funds when school fees are due. As a complement to these parent savings groups, PAGE works with schools and communities to create school-based businesses that reduce school fees by covering some recurrent costs at the schools.
Luguma Venant, president of the Muleke Primary School Parents Committee in Walungu, South Kivu, says the programs are making a difference. “The children of parents who participate in PAGE savings groups are attending school regularly and are no longer at risk of being kicked out of school,” Venant says. “Parents who participate in PAGE-supported income generating activities are able to pay their children’s school fees.”
In addition to activities at the community level, PAGE works with national authorities and partners like UNICEF to help formulate educational policies that ensure quality and sustainability. PAGE helps government officials and international partners assess the DRC school fees landscape and works to inform policy change by facilitating broad-based forums and grassroots advocacy at the local level.
All of these activities are interrelated. Interactive radio instruction increases the quality of teaching and learning and piques the interest of parents and community members in the teaching and learning process. Parents eager to give their children the opportunity to benefit from radio instruction join Parent Associations and learn new techniques for generating income for school-related expenses. At the national level, research helps legislators understand the financial burden of sending children to school and effectively govern school-based businesses and parent-driven income generating activities. Together, the activities complement each other and increase overall program effectiveness.
The cumulative result of these activities is improvements in educational quality, access, and sustainability. For communities in the DRC, that’s truly something to sing about.
Originally published on December 1, 2007