Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Education in Algeria: An Inherited Hybrid System from French Colonialism

Specials- Education algeria
Members of a student union of the Higher National School of Applied Economy and Statistics (ENSSEA) protest on March 14, 2011 in front of presidential offices in Algiers for more money for education and jobs. Photo AFP

In 1962, newly independent Algeria inherited a hybrid education system that combined French, Arab and Zawaya religious schools. The French schools in Algeria operated in parallel with the system in France, with students in both countries being taught the same curriculum. However, this did not align with the needs and aspirations of the fledgling Algerian nation, which had sacrificed some of its most promising youth to restore its Arab and Islamic dignity and culture.

The Arab education system inherited from the Algerian Nationalist Movement and the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulema, which had schools and institutes across the country. The Independent National Party (the Algerian People’s Party) was very active in popular circles, offering lessons and free education to the people.

The Zawaya schools, meanwhile, were mainly found in the countryside and the southern regions that were far from the French administration.

Following independence, the state made it a priority to establish an education system that was in line with the intellectual and cultural requirements of the Algerian people and had been missing under the French.

Post-Independence Split

After independence, with illiteracy at more than 90 per cent, the ruling authorities faced major challenges in the education sector. The situation was further complicated by the massive emigration of European settlers. In 1962, around 18,000 of the country’s 23,500 teachers (59.76 per cent) and 1,400 of the 2,000 professors (70 per cent) left the country. This left a huge gap that was filled with staff brought in from Arab, European and Asian countries who often did not meet the educational levels required to hold the positions.

This had a negative impact on the quality of education and led to a split in the system: the Algerian state system on the one hand and the French system supervised by the French Cultural University Office at the French embassy on the other. The effects of this split are still felt to this day, with ongoing tensions between the pro-Arabization and Francophone camps, which both see their way as the most appropriate. Algerian officials have made attempts to unify the system and to introduce quick solutions to the growing number of schoolchildren and lack of teaching staff.

Algeria establishes its own Education System

Specials- Education algeria
Algerian students wave national flags during the official opening of the 2010-2011 academic year at ‘Kasdi Merbah’ University of Ouargla 800km west of Algiers attended by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, on October 27, 2010. Photo AFP

Algeria considered education to be the key element of any social, cultural and economic change. As a result, education was a top priority in the comprehensive development policy that was adopted immediately after independence. It incorporated basic texts and charters in the constitution as a reference from which radical reforms that included different educational phases emanated. The policy was supported by the issuance of legislative texts that laid down the legal foundations and features for the organization of education. Such foundations were based on several themes, notably consolidating the nationalist spirit and the religious and cultural identity of the Algerian people; promoting the values of spirituality and civilization and their key options; raising awareness about the need for education to eliminate illiteracy rates; consolidating the principles of Arabization, democracy and scientific and technical guidance; and, most importantly, delivering free education for all.

Since independence, the education system has gone through four major phases. The first was the foundation and restoration of identity phase (1962-1970). The first national committee for educational reform was established to develop an education system that was in line with the Algerian identity and moved away from the heritage of the French colonizers. Then came the phase of establishing the educational system (1970-1980). One of the priorities of that phase was the Arabization of education and attaching it to the Algerian identity (in terms of curriculum, teachers and supervisors), in addition to standardizing curricula and exams and imposing exclusive supervision by the state.

That phase was followed by structural reforms, the completion of the Arabization process and the role of education from 1980 to 2000. A reform committee was established to oversee a review of the content of basic schooling. New class times, programmes and curricula were prepared, and new textbooks and teaching aids were composed.

This was followed by the openness and privatization phase starting in 2000; the promulgation of the National Education Directive Law, which defines the mission of schools; the establishment of the Algerian personality and the unification of the nation; the promotion and preservation of values related to Islam and the Arabic and Amazigh languages; and the delivery of training on citizenship, openness and inclusion in the world progress movement. This final phase witnessed the start of private investment in education, which was unprecedented and highly controversial.

It should be noted that education deteriorated during the so-called black decade (1990-2000), when Algeria endured a wave of terrorist attacks. These targeted and destroyed schools and universities and claimed the lives of many students and teachers, causing destruction, desolation and reluctance to pursue an education. In addition, displacement of rural populations to cities to escape the violence made it difficult for educational institutions to absorb the influx of students, leading to overcrowding in existing sections, the opening of joint sections and the introduction of a two-shift system because of the acute shortage of teaching staff. Despite improvements, the education system has still not fully recovered.

Collapse of Education for All

Democratization of education means that education becomes a universal right and prevents the monopoly of education by a specific group of people, as was the case in the colonial era. The number of Algerians who had access to education under the French was limited, and only a handful could afford to go on to become doctors, lawyers, pharmacists and engineers.

Following independence, the state raised the banner of democratic education and promoted it throughout the country and across all social groups. A decade after independence, all levels of education – primary, secondary and higher – became free and available for all Algerians.

Over the past half century, this noble goal of education for all has become one of entitlement, in which quantity is favoured over quality.

Arguably, one of the main reasons for this deterioration is the poor remuneration of teachers at all levels. A teacher about to retire receives a monthly salary not exceeding 60,000 dinars, equivalent to 300 euros on the black market, which is not very different from that of university professors, whose monthly salary when approaching retirement age would not exceed 150,000 dinars or 750 euros. Teachers view their financial situation as having a strong influence on their morale, quality of life and level of ambition while filling them with despair and a desire to find alternative jobs.

The impact of poorly paid teachers on Algeria’s low level of education was revealed in the Davos Indicator for Measuring Quality of Education in 2016, in the World Economic Forum report that came out after the annual meeting held in Davos, Switzerland. The report said that Algeria ranked 119th out of 140 countries, both in terms of quality and level of education.

Continuous reform; frequent failures

Reform of the education system has continued, as have the failures. In July 2015, a mistake was spotted in the baccalaureate Arabic language exam. Students were tested on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, when in fact the poem was by Nizar Qabbani. The mistake became a national scandal, which the Minister of Education Nouria Benghabrit-Remaoun believed was a conspiracy to undermine her.

In early September 2016, the Ministry of Education decided to withdraw the new grade one geography textbook because of a typographical error that saw Israel’s name included on a map instead of Palestine – a major blunder in a country that is known for its firm stance on Israel.

Successive scandals have raised serious questions about the nature of the changes the curriculum is undergoing as part of a reform that is not clearly defined. Indeed, the reform has been met with a mixed response, with some considering it to be an estrangement tool and others viewing it as a modernization tool. Benghabrit-Remaoun has been at the centre of the debate on the topic.

Reform Experience is flawed but Inspiring

The school attendance rate in Algeria was 98.5 per cent in 2018. However, Benghabrit-Remaoun acknowledged that students face difficulties, especially in mathematics and science, adding “School attendance does not necessarily reflect the level of learning.” The minister relied on various evaluations that showed students made many errors. She also said that the results showed that students do not have the necessary skills to meet the challenges of the third millennium such as critical thinking, creativity, participation, communication, flexibility and initiative taking.

According to Mouad Bouchareb, speaker of the People’s National Assembly, “The Ministry of Education must meet the challenge of quality in accordance with international standards to improve the chances of Algeria to integrate globally while preserving its special character.”

For her part, Marie Françoise Marie-Nelly, the World Bank’s country director for the Maghreb and Malta, Middle East and North Africa, said that she was “deeply impressed by the quality of work that Algeria has done to reform its educational system”.

In a tweet posted after she met the minister of education in the capital Algiers in December 2018, Marie-Nelly wrote that Algeria is making great efforts in the long run, and ‘we should encourage and support’ these efforts. She added that many countries should be inspired by what Algeria has done in this field.