Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Doc initiated: 28.01.14
Current version: 08.03.15

Post by Bert Witkamp*

Education in Zambia issue 2: By government measure Zambian primary school pupils shall be taught in grade 1 to 4 in the dominant vernacular language of the area where the school is located and English during these years shall be abandoned as language of instruction. Shall this measure result in lasting better school performance or not?

At the beginning I should make the proviso that at the time of writing (28.01.14) many Zambian teachers are not clear about the ongoing educational reforms, both as regards content and manner of implementation. The article below hence may require adjustment as more information becomes available.

Primary schools in Zambia as of 2014 by government instruction have to use the dominant vernacular language of the area in which the schools are located as language of instruction in grade one to four. As of grade five English shall be the language of instruction and the “local language” shall be only one of the subjects taught. The measure serves in the first place to create a school environment better suited for the large majority of Zambian children as these come from homes where English is not or poorly spoken. Being taught in the language familiar to them should enhance their chances to perform well at school. The second argument has to do with a re-appreciation of the indigenous, and hence is ideological.

New school, new curriculum, better future?

Public primary schools, until this measure, had to use a vernacular language as language of instruction in grade one, use English and local language in grade two en employ English solely as of grade three.  There is no doubt that this system was disadvantageous to pupils coming from homes where English was not spoken en where the parents or guardians did not master English. There is a direct relationship between performance at school and language skills in the language of instruction; and between such language skills and those prevailing at home. Many pupils from public schools come from lower class or downright poor families and the English language backlog of these pupils is not made good by the educational system.  The school thus becomes an instrument in the perpetuation of inequality; destining the underprivileged kids by poor grade 7 exam results to the poorest post primary schools willing to accept them where they are bound to have even less chance for satisfactory post grade nine education.

That such a situation needs to be addressed is not a point of discussion. It must be, but how to do so is less evident. Let us first look at the old situation in which after grade two English was in principle the main or sole language of instruction. Can poor performance of a great many (often more than half) pupils of public primary schools be attributed to this factor alone or are other variables at play as well? The answer is that a number of significant negative circumstances contribute to poor performance; English language deficiency being a major one but its prominent position usually arises from other contributing negative factors. Below a list of these negatives, definitely not complete, but surely revealing.

1.       Excessively large classes with 60 pupils in a class or more not being an exception.
2.       Public schools practically teach a class part-time only (either mornings or afternoons).
3.       The schools have no system into place to assist pupils with learning difficulties - in this case those caused by English language defieciency.
4.       Too many teachers doing a shoddy job despite now being well paid.
5.      Ordinary public schools have pupils that should be send to special schools because of physical, social or psychological disabilities or disorders and have no facilities to deal with these pupils requiring special education.
6.       Many primary schools do not have (sufficient) teaching aids, including text books.
7.       Pupils are promoted to the next grade even when their results are grossly insufficient. This system, affecting large numbers of pupils, creates backlogs in all subjects that are increasingly difficult to make good.
8.       Domestic problems and obstructions such as:
a.       Parents or guardians have or give no money for writing books, pencils, uniforms &c.
b.      Parents or guardians do not encourage their children to do well at school and take no interest in their school performance.
c.       Parents or guardians cannot help the pupil with homework  because they lack the knowledge or skills.
d.      Parents or guardians don’t master English sufficiently; English is not spoken at home.
e.   Various forms of child abuse including sending the child to work rather than to school or burdening the child with excessive amounts of domestic or agricultural labour.
f.        The pupil is not loved and well cared for by the parents or custodians.
g.       Problems of parents or guardians such as death & disease, family quarrels, alcohol abuse, or social conflict and acceptance.

It is obvious that lack of English language skills is only one of the many factors negatively impacting on the performance of pupils at public primary schools; be it a major one. It follows that the change from English to the vernacular as language of instruction alone shall not be enough to substantially improve the primary school performance notably of pupils raised in poor, non-English speaking families. The truth of this statement is in fact underpinned by the situation prevailing now (i.e., at the time of writing, January 2014): many schools in rural areas and in urban or municipal townships de facto teach bilingual: both in English and in the dominant vernacular language; with the latter often being used most.

We need to, irrespective of the issue of the choice of the language(s) of instruction, clearly be aware of structural problems of the current public primary school teaching situation – a context larger than that of the language of instruction. The basic issue is: Do the public primary schools presently have the capacity to provide primary school education in a satisfactory manner? The answer is that there is a great variety in the quality of these schools, and of those that work in them, but that too many schools suffer from the negatives mentioned above: over enrollment, poor teaching, lack of teaching aids and books, insufficient number of teaching hours, lack of provisions to deal with backlogs and, perhaps worst of all: lack of educational standards. None of these issues are addressed by a change in language of instruction.

Prior to the discussion of the practical merits and demerits of the teaching in the vernacular I would like to consider a few of its ideological aspects. Point 1: Loosely you can say that intellectually you are what you think and conventionally intellectual thinking is done in language; and the language you are closest to normally is your native language. Your local, indigenous language therefore is part of your personality, and this again is embedded in the all pervasive linguistic culture of your environment. Elevating the status of the vernacular languages by prolonging its usage as language of instruction and by obligatory teaching and learning thereafter hence is an acknowledgement of the value of these languages as cultural practice and heritage. Point 2: I strongly support that all those attending primary and secondary school in Zambia (Zambians and non-Zambians alike) should obligatory learn a vernacular language; meaning such leaning is part of the school curriculum. The issue of the extent to which a vernacular language should be the means of instruction might best be left to the schools themselves, certainly in the case of the private schools but also in circumstances where pupils come from a large variety of linguistic backgrounds or where teachers don't master the locally dominant language.

On the practical side we may positively note that for most pupils learning in grades one to four shall be made easier when taught in their vernacular language; and that generally vernacular language ability shall improve. However, these benefiting pupils must be prepared to capitalize on their gains as of grade five, and that shall only happen if the English language is well instructed as of the onset of primary education.

Negatively a number of issues arise that may compromise the envisaged positive outcomes.
1.       Not all pupils of any area A are necessarily native speakers of the dominant vernacular language of area A; and that is in particular true of municipalities and towns. These kids, in fact, may be handicapped by the measure. Kids that have to move from one area to another, for example because of family circumstances, or because the parent/guardian has been allocated to another place of work may be severely disadvantaged.
2.       Presently a significant number of teachers in any given area is not a native speaker of the dominant vernacular language of that area; a situation directly consequent to the current placement policy of teachers by the Ministry of Education. Teachers do not choose their work station, they are assigned to one.
3.       Text books for grade one to four all have to be (re)written in, or be complemented by, textbooks in all of the vernacular languages that shall be taught at primary schools. I am happy to note that the current (English language) books covering the subjects taught from grade 1 to 7 are good to excellent. Text books for the vernacular languages to be taught also must be available for the period or classes that these languages are taught.
4.       The vernacular languages tend to be a series of dialectic variations rather than a single, standardized language. Gwembe Valley chiTonga, for example, differs from Plateau chiTonga, and each of these two major divisions has numerous local varieties. So which one is right and which one is going to be used for testing and exam purposes?

In conclusion I’d say, with reservations, that the measures make sense for public schools in rural and lower class township areas provided English is also taught as of grade 1; that in private schools learning a vernacular language should be compulsory but not its introduction as language of instruction; that these reforms in public schools can only work if the teacher school allocation system of the Ministry of Education is geared towards it (that is, a teacher must be fully conversant in the vernacular language used at the school where he/she is to be posted) and that the necessary teaching or texts book have been designed, printed and made available. And even if those issues are addressed nothing much will change if other structural problems of primary education in Zambia are not tackled: problems of overcrowding, lack of standards and of commitment, of poorly qualified teachers and poor Teachers Training Colleges (some of which may now call themselves universities), of lack of classrooms, facilities and teaching aids; and of too many parents or guardians taking no interest in the school performance of their children.

*The author is a cultural anthropologist and long time Zambian resident with one child at a Zambian public secondary school and one child at a Zambian private primary school.