Before the establishment of a European educational system, Koranic schools educated young males in the teachings of Islam and often in reading and writing Arabic. Today, the Islamic-Arabic element of education is practically absent from the public school curriculum. To compensate, students sometimes participate in parallel educational programs, absenting themselves from public school part of the time. Reformers, particularly the Tidjane of the urban areas, started a system of schools with the help of the Federation of Moslem Cultural Associations of Senegal. These schools provide an Arabic education which permits entry into higher secondary schooling in the Arab world (Michel 1988).
During the first twenty years of Senegal's independence, President Senghor (alleged to have said, "French is the language of the Gods") and others staunchly defended maintaining the French education model. Its programs, structures, and aims continued to make it "an apprentice of the French school" (Rideout and Bagayoko 1994). Despite reform efforts which have repeatedly pressed for a "specifically African" curriculum, the language of instruction remains predominately French.
Despite evidence of the benefits of mother tongue instruction, the local publishing industry has been slow to produce such materials, partly because of the diversity of languages which dilutes the demand for materials in any one language. Local language materials are also two or three times as expensive to produce as materials in French because of smaller production runs and higher start-up costs. World Bank figures from 1986 show that 153,000 textbooks in French are produced in the country, in contrast to 4,140 in Wolof and 532 in Diola (Vawda and Patrinos 1999).
Attendance rates vary widely from as much as 93 percent of school-age children in urban areas to as low as 10 percent in some rural areas (Cain and Schuman). Whether children attend formal school or not, they are instilled with the mores of their society from an early age. Children of five or six have family responsibilities and, at about the age of eight, they begin to receive formal occupational training. Most Senegalese ethnic groups have a formal system of apprenticeship through which knowledge, skills, and expectations are passed along from mothers to daughters and from fathers to sons (Michel 1988).
Illiteracy, however, remains high. Of the population that is age 15 and over, 52 percent of men and 72 percent of women are illiterate. This shows some reduction in illiteracy from the 1980 figures, which showed 78 percent of men and 88 percent of women to be illiterate.
Private schools represent an important part of the education sector. At the middle and secondary level, private institutions, largely Catholic, enroll about 28 percent of the students (Cain and Schuman 1994). The convergence of several factors has given Senegal a particular advantage in developing private sector education. These factors include intellectual and academic freedom, an infrastructure capable of supporting educational institutions, and an exceptionally strong faith in the value of academic intellectual pursuits inherited from both its French and Muslim ancestry.
Private schools provide education not only for the children of the elite. Middle class and working class families make enormous sacrifices to pay for private education because they believe it will bring about a more secure economic future for their children. Most private schools are religious institutions. They are required to follow the government-approved curriculum, use government recommended textbooks, and employ licensed teaching staff. Some receive government subsidies to meet operating expenses. Students from private institutions are admitted to state examinations and may receive state diplomas.
Special education for students with disabilities is still not well developed; however, in 1992 there were five special schools providing programs for about 400 students (Sow 1995). Reliable statistics on the need for such schools are not yet available.
The UNESCO Regional Office for Education in Africa is located in Dakar, serving 43 member states and providing a valuable resource. It also hosts a multimedia center including books, periodicals, and other research material.
In April of 2000, Senegal hosted a major conference on education, dubbed Education for All 2000, under the auspices of the Education For All Forum, based at UNESCO headquarters. Senegal is one of the strongest adherents to the Education For All initiative, with a goal of universal education by the year 2008.
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