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A day in primary school in Eritrea

Enthusiastic pupils from the Medeber primary school. Pupils go to school in two shifts to make sure there’s enough room for everyone.

By Kirkonulkomaanapu

Primary school children dressed in bright green school uniforms smile and wave at us on our morning run while the morning rush hour is only just about to start. As sunlight breaks colours into soft evening shades, groups of school children returning home bring colour back to the streets of Asmara. What is going on? Do school days in Eritrea last from dawn till dusk?

In Eritrea, primary school has grades one to five. Children usually start school at age six. Primary school pupils have 30 classes per week, each class lasting between 30 and 60 minutes.

Because of the large number of keen pupils, classes are held in shifts, as was the case in Finland once. The pupils, then, don’t spend the whole day in school. But the same teachers work with both the morning and the afternoon shifts.

This week we had the opportunity to visit primary schools in Asmara. The schools in the capital are crammed but classes are mainly held indoors. There are schools in more remote regions where a shelter made from sticks and tarpaulin, or the shadow of a large tree serve as classrooms.

The Medeber primary school is one of the oldest in the city. The school, founded in the 1930s, has some 1,100 pupils and 24 teachers. In addition, the school has two classes for children with disabilities which have 52 pupils. They study in the school for 11 years. We got to visit their mathematics class where everyone was busy writing numbers. The children welcomed us cheerfully and then continued working vigorously.

The first year English class was having an exercise where one student got in front of the class and picked one of the object put on display. A little girl in pigtails determinedly picked up a large white cup and held it up for her classmates to see. “Cup!” the girls said and the others repeated the word in unison. When the word had been repeated about a dozen times, the teacher instructed the girl to move on to the next phase. “What is this?” the girl asked, and the class replied, at the top of their lungs: “This is a cup!”

In primary school, teaching is done in one’s own native tongue – in one of nine languages in Eritrea. However, English lessons start from the first grade, and from secondary school onward, English is the official language of teaching.

From Mederber we continued to the Erafaile School a stone’s throw away. This is the largest school in Eritrea in number of pupils. The school has a total of 2,180 pupils and 42 teachers, and group sizes are limited to 40 pupils. This is exceptional in a country where classes in primary schools often have as much as 60 pupils. The enormous school building of Erafaile has been constructed with Chinese funding and the school was opened only a little over a year ago.

The content and progression of teaching in all schools in the country are determined by school books provided by the Ministry of Education. In primary schools, teachers only teach certain subjects, which means they hold the same classes for many different groups over a week. Curricula for the upcoming week have to be presented to the school’s pedagogical director beforehand on the Friday preceding the classes. The uniformity of education is considered extremely important.

While going from classroom to classroom, we asked the pupils what their dream jobs were. In one class, almost everyone wanted to become police officers. The director of the school told us that some time ago, a police officer had visited the school to talk about his profession.

In another class, the most common ambition was to become a doctor. We also met pupils dreaming of becoming engineers, electrical technicians, pilots and farmers. And quite a few wanted to become teachers as well. Pupils were excited about studying and knew that getting an education is important.
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