Travel Togo: SETting Forth for Success
In May, 2017 SET directors, Don Barclay and Simon Carette, took the 29-hour trip to Lomé, Togo. As SET’s commitment to donors, one or more directors visits each year to review SET projects both recent and past.
Goals for this trip included checking the durability of the built schools, along with the standard of community maintenance of schools, particularly older ones such as Ametonoukondji completed in December, 2013. But attention to bricks and mortar did not take precedence over Simon and Don’s interest in the changes SET schools have made to their host communities, changes which they discovered included social and economic factors as well as educational improvements.
With each successive year the level of confidence between SET directors and Action Enfance et Dévéloppement, SET’s Togolese partner, increases. This deepening relationship brings both new rewards and new challenges. For both parties a major area of discussion in 2017 centred on educational competency, defined as levels of skill in language and mathematics. Important as it is that Togo students have safe, solid buildings in which to learn, the learning itself is what makes the difference to their future. By following Don and Simon’s week of reviewing we can focus on what they discovered about positive changes as well as upcoming challenges for SET.
On their first visit to Amoussime (built in March 2013) a class of kindergarteners sang a welcome that also included solo pieces. Singing songs in French the children demonstrated how high the level of teaching can be within the public school system. Their teacher, a young woman, with both a university degree and a teachers’ college diploma expounded on the importance of early childhood education impressing SET directors with her knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment. Along the way Simon and Don encountered other highly trained teachers within the Togolese system that only demands grade 12 equivalency to teach. The two directors noted the higher level of demonstrated learning coming from the better trained educators.
To support education in Togo, backing teacher training has been a part of the SET mandate for several years. Volunteer teachers, those teachers working for almost no pay to gain experience in order to go to teachers’ college, receive a salary top-up when they teach in SET schools. In Amoussime where schools A and B exist side by side, only one is a SET school. There the directors discovered that the SET volunteer teachers shared their top-up with the volunteer teachers in the other school. Besides giving the volunteer teachers an income, the SET top-up encourages volunteer teachers to remain in the SET schools providing a more continuous learning environment for themselves as well as their students. In another effort to raise the level of teaching in its schools SET will sponsor its first teacher-training workshop in August, 2017.
Such investments in raising the learning standards in SET schools have a high level of importance in light of a recent study of ten francophone West African countries. Done by the Program for the Analysis of Education Systems (PASEC) the study rated students who have completed elementary school on their competency in math as well as their literacy in French. The results demonstrate that a lot more work remains to be done throughout the region. Less than one-third of all children passed with sufficient competency. In Togo, despite a high primary school completion rate of 77 per cent, competency overall was rated at 25 per cent.
As Simon and Don found at the newest SET school in Anfoin, attendance increases dramatically with the construction of a substantial concrete building. Without doubt SET stimulates higher school attendance but academic competency statistics relating to Togo’s poorest students show worrisome conclusions. Only eight per cent of the very poorest children (the SET sector) achieve sufficient competency and among the poorest girls, only three per cent achieve such competency. The impact of this finding led to major discussions with SET’s Togo partner around reasons for the results. A second part of Don and Simon’s probe was to look at how SET could contribute to improving results within SET schools.
Some highly probably reasons for low test results relate to the very low rates of literacy among parents in many communities. A consideration, however, is that for parents who never went to school, having children attend, especially in a solidly constructed building like the SET schools, is a step forward. Partial academic competence is better than none.
Another challenge for learning within a French-language system comes from the fact that children do not speak French when they arrive at school. More than 40 living languages exist in the country with the Ewe language comprising the majority of speakers in the southern SET region of Togo. However, in a community like Bédjémé, the site most recently approved for a SET school, families speak Kaybe. These families migrated from the north to find better farm lands in the south. They continue to speak their traditional language which is different from the Ewe that their children’s teachers speak. Thus, the possibility for teachers to at least use a traditional language to explain French terms is not there. Recognizing these many layers of language learning helps to put both teaching and learning challenges in perspective.
In this context Simon and Don could see that ensuring elementary students grasp the French language is an important objective for SET. To do this SET directors and their Togolese partner will make it a priority to ensure that the workbooks created and distributed by the Togo Department of Education will be used in every SET classroom. These math and language workbooks guide children through their learning of the subjects with a parallel focus on learning French.
A footnote to the academic competency issue: educators, parents, students all want this situation to improve. All recognize the challenges are not insurmountable and some, like the female principal of the school in Adokpoé, the possible next SET site, take strong action. When Don and Simon visited the school, Principal Degbe Drake explained how she talked parents and students into having academic review sessions on Wednesday afternoons when schools in Togo are closed.
Upon their return to Canada Simon and Don agreed travelling to Togo immeasurably enhanced their understanding of issues related to SET. SET’s commitment to visit southern Togo every year remains unwavering.