Education in the RIM


          Following is a brief explanation of the national system of education in Mauritania. (RIM is the acronym for the French name of the country, République Islamique de Mauritanie.)

          The educational system began a major reform in 1999. It is the gradual and ongoing implementation of aspects of this reform that is creating the structure as it looks today. In order to appreciate the changes in the new system, it is helpful to understand some features of the twenty years that preceded it:

Formerly two separate branches of study

          From 1979 to 1999, there were two separate branches of study, based along linguistic lines. Each student was enrolled in one of these:

          (1) Arabisant (Arabic) branch, in which Arabic was the language of instruction for all classes and French was but one of the subjects taught. This constituted the overwhelming majority of students.

          (2) Bilingue (bilingual) branch, in which French was the language of instruction for all classes except Arabic and Islamic studies. One of the motivations for parents to enroll their children in this course of study was the advantage that their children may have had for furthering their education abroad upon completion of their studies.

          These two branches were operated separately, which was a concern for the government. Additionally, standards were on a steady decline during the Nineties. For example, in 1998, only 30% of all students passed the exam known as the baccalaureate (“bac”), which entitled them to enroll in university.

Primary and secondary schools

          There are not any public pre-schools, pre-kindergartens, or kindergartens. If children attend these, it is up to their parents. Most of these are in the larger cities. Kindergartens are run by non-governmental organizations and private enterprise. Some of them are under the jurisdiction of Condition Feminine, a government program that is in charge of women's advancement in the RIM. Many private schools cover all grades from kindergarten through lycée. The description of schools that follows pertains to the public (state-run) system in the country, governed by the Ministry of Education (Ministère de l'Education Nationale, or MEN).

          Students attend primary school for six years. The Peace Corps has limited work at this level, through our Environmental Education program. Primary school instruction for the first year is in Arabic. For the second through sixth years, some subjects are taught in French, which is one of the innovations of the 1999 reform. The goal is for all students to be bilingual. Completing primary school leads to a primary school certificate, (CEPE, Certificat d'Etudes Primaires Elémentaires) which one gets after passing exams given in both Arabic and French.

          Primary school has been compulsory since about 2001, but there is no enforcement. It is still possible to see young boys who operate the donkey carts around the country; they are obviously not in school! It is rare to see a village or hamlet without a primary school, but that does not mean that all local children attend. Some children living in remote areas do not go to the public school because their parents prefer that they go to the koranic school. Children also work in small businesses run by their parents and some stay at home to take care of younger siblings.

          Following primary school is the collège (pronounced in the French manner, koh-LEJ), which had been three years until the 1999 reform added a fourth year, to begin during the 2004-2005 school year. Arabic is the language of instruction for arts, philosophy, and literature. French is the language of instruction for math, science, and computer science. It is during the first year of collège that English instruction begins. The student who successfully completes collège is awarded a diploma (BEPC, Brevet d'Etudes de Premier Cycle) and can then go to lycée.

          The lycée is a three-year course of study that follows collège. At the lycée, students are placed in programs along the lines of what we might call a major. Based on grades in collège, students are assigned to one of a séries which we may call "tracks" or "streams" and these séries are known by letters. Série A focuses on literature, philosophy, and language. Série C focuses on math, physics and chemistry. Série D focuses on natural sciences, physics, chemistry, and math. In addition to their major, students in all these séries take classes in French or Arabic.

          At the end of the lycée, and upon successful completion of the baccalaureate, the student may go on to higher education.

Other alternatives

          A few other ministries besides the MEN are involved in education in the RIM. While most of the Koranic schools (mahadras) are privately run, there are also some that are subsidized by the state. These fall under the jurisdiction of the newly-created Ministère de l'Enseignement Originel, whose focus is the eradication of illiteracy and initial education. There is also a separate Ministry of Youth and Culture.

          Some students attend collège and lycées techniques, which is a two-year vocational school program with an emphasis on such subjects as electricity, general mechanics, auto mechanics, engines, metal work, construction, masonry, plumbing, and carpentry. There are only three collèges and lycées techniques in the country; they are in Nouakchott, Nouadhibou, and Boghé.

          Students who complete their two-year collège technique program can continue to lycée technique, also a two-year program, in the same three cities. The lycée technique program leads to a baccalaureate technique. One other alternative exists, and that is the lycée commercial, in Nouakchott, where students learn accounting and secretarial skills.

          CFPP, the Centre de Formation de Perfectionnement Professionelle, is a trade school that operates under the Ministry of Civil Service and Employment. It runs centers in Nouakchott, Kiffa, Atar, Selibaby, Nema, Aioun, Tidjikja, Aleg, Kaedi, Boghe, and Rosso. The courses of study throughout the CFPP include woodworking, auto mechanics, metalworking (welding), masonry, home and industrial electricity, air conditioning and refrigeration maintenance, plumbing, computer training, small business bookkeeping, and French. Typically speaking, though, most centers train students in only two to four of the areas listed above. The Nouakchott center includes sewing instruction for women.

          The purpose of the CFPP training centers is to get students into apprentice programs where they can learn a trade during a nine-month period. Their days include some hours in learning trade technique, language study, and apprenticeships with artisans already working in their trade.

          The CFPF (Centre de Formation de Perfectionnement Feminin) is also called CPF (Centre de Promotion Feminine), is open only for the training of women, and run by Condition Feminine. The Nouakchott center has a computer room for training, and includes sewing and kitchen skills for women. Groupement Feminine d'Epargne et Credit offers micro-financing for women who would like to start their own businesses.

Grades and grading system

          Note in the section immediately above that the order of subjects as listed in Séries C and D indicate the diminishing emphasis of the subjects within each série; for example, math has a greater emphasis in Série C than it does in Série D. In Série A, there is a greater emphasis on literature and language.

          Grading is done on a system in which the highest possible grade in any subject is a 20; in order to pass any subject, the student must attain a minimum of 10. The grades for all of a student's subjects are averaged into a formula called la moyenne générale, which is the local equivalent of what we would call the grade-point average.

          Arriving at the moyenne générale is a complicated process because all classes are not given equal emphasis. Main subjects in a student's série always have a heavier value than other classes. In the example of French, it has a higher emphasis for a bilingue student than for an Arabisant, so a course grade of 12 in French would be multiplied by a higher co-efficient for the former than the latter.

          One of the major impacts for Peace Corps Volunteers teaching English in Mauritania has to do with the co-efficient given to English in the figuring of the moyenne générale. Grades in English are multiplied by a lower co-efficient than other classes. As a result, students may not be as motivated to study or get good grades in English because it has a lesser value in their average.

Languages of instruction in schools

          It is noteworthy that for most students, the languages of school instruction are different than the languages spoken at home. The four different ethnic groups here speak Hassaniya (said by Mauritanians to be the closest dialect to classical Arabic), Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof. All four of these are spoken languages that have only recently been written in any form. While they are spoken in homes, on the street, and in the marketplace, they are not officially the language of instruction in any school, though they are frequently used for teaching.

          As a result of the combination of home and school languages, many children grow up speaking – or at least are exposed to – a minimum of three languages: French, Arabic, and whatever other language is spoken in the home. Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof have standardized written formats using Roman letters; this is not the case with Hassaniya. In fact, even though the sounds made in Hassaniya can be written using the Arabic alphabet, the Mauritanian government does not want this to be done in the schools. Strictly speaking, then, there is no Hassaniya alphabet because the language is a dialect of Arabic.

          While the children who speak Hassaniya at home have an advantage in Arabic at school because of the similarities between the two languages, this also has a negative impact on their writing and reading of English and French in school because Arabic is written and read from right to left.

          Up until now, students have been in the Francophone or Arabisant track, getting their academic courses taught in either of these two languages. As of October, 2004 there will be a change to this system, as the next phase of implementation of the reform of 1999. Starting with the 2004-2005 school year, all classes in religious studies, history, geography, literature, civics, and philosophy will be taught in Arabic to all students. All classes in physics, computer sciences, math, physical sciences, and natural sciences will be taught in French to all students.

          From 1979 to 1999, English was taught in school only during the three years of lycée. Since the reform, though, it is now taught in collège, which increases to seven the number of years that English is taught. English instruction is for only two to three hours per week, which means that students go to English class only once or twice a week. Some students have English for two hours at a time once a week, which is not effective. Most native English speakers who are teaching English in Mauritania are Peace Corps Volunteers; all other English teachers are Mauritanians, some of whom have studied and lived abroad in order to work on their English skills.

Secondary school administration

          The school administration hierarchy for the collège and lycée includes the following positions:

          * the directeur, who is the general manager of the school. This person is the liaison to the Directeur Regional de l’Education Nationale, a regional office of the Ministry of Education.

          * the directeur des études, which may be divided into two positions if the school is large enough to warrant it. One, in charge of pedagogy, will create the academic schedule and monitor the work of the teachers, to be sure they are teaching what they should be teaching. This includes examining the cahier de textes that each teacher keeps, as a means of recording the subject matter taught in each class session. The second directeur des études does the administrative work of registering students, receiving grades from the teachers, and keeping track of all students’ transcripts.

          * the surveillant général, who helps the directeur des études and is the disciplinarian of the school.

          * surveillants, who report to and help the surveillant général in schools.

          * the économe, the person who is in charge of all school finances, including the quarterly distribution of grants that some students receive for attending school.

University and teacher training

          There is one university in the RIM, and that is the Université de Nouakchott. It offers two different degrees: (1) the Diplome d’Etudes Universitaires Générales (DEUG) after the successful completion of two years of study and (2) the Maîtrise after a four-year course of study.

          There are several programs specifically for training teachers, depending on the age level of the students who the teachers will ultimately teach.

          In order to teach in primary school, a teacher candidate needs to have successfully completed the bac at the end of the lycée. From there, to get into the teacher-training institute for primary school teachers, the Ecole Normale des Instituteurs (ENI), they need to pass an entrance exam. At that point, the course of study at the ENI is two years long, after which the candidate may teach in primary school. University graduates may teach at the primary school level, but that is not required.

          For teaching at the collège or lycée level, the process is a little longer and more complicated, as follows:

          Collège-bound teachers need their DEUG from the University and then must pass the entrance exam to get into the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS), where they enter a two-year program referred to as the first cycle. At the successful completion of this program, they are graduated with their teaching license (CAFPPC, Certificat d'Aptitude aux Fonctions de Professeur du Premier Cycle) and may teach at the collège.

          For future lycée teachers, they need to have completed their Maîtrise at the University, get into the ENS by successfully passing the entrance exam, and then pass two years of study, after which they are graduated with their teaching license (CAPES, Certificat d'Aptitude au Professorat de l'Enseignment Secondaire). During their ENS years, they are referred to as being in the second cycle.

          Even though the usual ENS course of study is for two years, if there is a severe need for teachers, students get their total pre-classroom training in three months or, under dire circumstances, in 45 days. This 45-day training period became necessary after the initial implementation of the 1999 educational reform, which resulted in a shortage of teachers.

          During the 2003-2004 school year, there were 21 trainees in the second year of the program headed to becoming lycée teachers. There were 23 students in the first year of the first cycle, studying both English and French, and 18 students in the first year of the second cycle, studying English.

Teacher and inspector assignments

          Teachers are assigned to their school communities by the government. They have very little say in the matter of where they will live and work; it is limited to listing three choices on a paper to indicate sites where they would like to work. Somebody told me that they usually get one of their choices. These assignments do not take into account where the teacher’s family is living at the time the appointment is made. It is not only possible, but highly likely, that a teacher will be assigned to teach in a school that is far away from his home. In that case, either the entire family moves or the teacher moves, thereby leaving the family at home. (The latter is more common than the former.)

          This system of posting teachers around the country by whim of the government is a policy that is also reflected in the military and the national police force. Its purpose is to integrate the various ethnic groups around the country, so that citizens from all regions have experience in relating to all others, resulting in a more integrated national identity. If this were not done, certain areas of the country would continue to be enclaves for individual ethnic groups, and that would not be desirable.

          School inspectors work for the Inspection Générale de l'Education Nationale (IGEN). They are generally recruited from among school directeurs and directeurs des études.

          In order to become an inspector at the primary school level, they need to have at least six years of experience as a teacher, pass an ENS entrance exam, and then complete a two-year program given at the ENS. At the end of the program, they are assistant inspectors (inspecteur adjoint de l'enseignement fondamentale).

          For collège and lycée inspectors, they need to have at least eight years of teaching experience. After their two years of training they are full inspectors (inspecteurs). Preferred candidates already have their Maîtrise or a Ph. D. Here is an important cultural note concerning the granting of positions as inspectors: while the training specified here is the official way to become inspectors, there are people who are granted these positions even though they do not meet the qualifications. This is a social and cultural reality of the system in Mauritania.

          Through the 2003-2004 school year, most of them have lived in Nouakchott. Their visits to schools around the country have been done as visits to the schools that they need to inspect. Effective the 2004-2005 school year, this will change, as inspectors will be assigned to live in the same region as the schools for which they are responsible.

          In speaking with several people about this assignment system, I have heard several times that there is a secondary reason for teachers and administrators to be placed in schools that are away from their home areas. This is to lessen the possibility of educators showing favoritism to students. In Mauritania, a great deal of emphasis is placed on who you know in order to get favors done. If a relative or good friend were in a position of authority in a school, favoritism would be shown in students' grades and other records.

          One of the byproducts of this upcoming aspect of the reform is that there are currently Arabic-speaking teachers whose subjects will soon be taught in French and French-speaking teachers who will soon be teaching their subject matter in Arabic. These teachers have been getting language instruction to help them teach their subjects in the other language as of next year.

          There are many people – teachers, surveillants, and librarians – who are truant from their work but remain on the payroll. Their lack of attendance may or may not be reported to a person in authority. The way the system works, though, is that if the director reports the chronically absent employee, it is likely that somewhere along the line, a hakem or ministry official will recognize the name as that of a friend, relative, active member of the party in power, member of the Muslim Brotherhood, or some other connection that is worthy of protecting. Connections are always protected; that is a principle of Mauritanian society. The teacher's name may or may not remain on the school schedule. In any event, the classes of the truant teacher will not meet. Said employee will continue to collect his salary and now has time to go into business or do some other sort of work.

          Ministry employees use a similar system to increase their income. While their work at the ministry is considered to be full-time, there are many occasions for which they cannot attend to their jobs because of other employment, such as teaching classes.

Impact of the 2003 presidential election

          Even though the election is not an annual event, the factors at work reveal some of the intricacies of the system of education, as well as its place in society:

          For starters, when the students get together during election times, they can be disruptive. The best way to ensure that they are not disruptive is to prevent them from being together, and the best way to be sure that they are not together is to keep the schools closed.

          Secondly, there is an official school holiday around the elections, from the fifth to the tenth of November. During those days, the teachers are responsible for working at polling places, which means that they would not be in school.

          Thirdly, because people do not show up promptly once school starts, that leaves only about two or three weeks for most of them until the elections. Since everyone knows that there are going to be disruptions during the election time, it doesn’t make sense to them to get everything started for only two weeks, only to be interrupted again.

          There is a fourth factor that contributes to the third one, and that is the problem of distance that affects both teachers and students, because many of them live far from the schools where they teach or attend. Since teachers do not have a choice where they teach, as explained above, they could have to travel to a place that is hundreds of kilometers away. (I have met several teachers in this situation.)

           As for the students, many of them live in villages that have no schools, and the commute to the nearest school takes several hours. For them, going to school means that they have to move to a different town during the school year and live in that town with other people, which may or may not be members of their extended family.

          For both of these groups, the travel and housing are not only expensive, but the process takes them away from their families while school is in session. Everyone wants to minimize the expense and the disruption to their family lives. School that is in session for only a few weeks at a time – then out of session again, then on again – costs money that is hard to come by.

          Put all these factors together, add the difficulties in changing a system in which people are entrenched, and you can see that the wheels of progress move slowly indeed!

Miscellaneous tidbits

          Here are a few other random facts about students, schools and their operations:

          There is no instruction of art or music of any kind in schools. Musicians in Mauritania are people who have been born into families of musicians. They are called griots (GREE-oh) and are the only people who get any kind of music instruction, which comes from their family members.

          Teaching materials are largely limited to the chalkboard and chalk. Students maintain notebooks called copybooks, into which they copy the information that teachers write on the board. Students with textbooks are those whose families have made the purchases for them.

          Class size can include anywhere from 50 to 80 students, and more. Students sit at desks with two or three other same-sex students. They typically get the attention of their teacher by waving their hands and snapping their fingers, calling, "Teacher!" Many students do not know the names of their teachers, preferring to address them simply as "Teacher" or "My teacher."

          Leading a classroom discussion can be a trying experience, in that students are not used to the "raise-your-hand-and-wait-to-be-called on" method. Rather, they will talk simultaneously, creating a cacophony that nobody could possibly understand.

          The traditional school year start date is October 1. Just because the school year starts on October 1 does not mean that everyone shows up on the first day of school. It frequently takes several weeks to get everyone – teachers and students alike – in place. The 2003-2004 school year was slow to start because of the presidential election that took place on the seventh of November 2003. Peace Corps teachers reported a wide range of school attendance at their sites; I could see that in Nouakchott, there were children going to school, though I could not judge what percentage of them was going.

          Instruction continues into June. There is not a mandated number of school days per instructional year. With the election of 2003, school got an especially late start, and there is no mechanism in place to make up the number of days that children missed. The exams at the end of the year will take place as scheduled, and anyone who fails the exams will repeat the entire school year.

Thanks: Sagna Ousmane, Diack M'Bodj, Bahena ould Moustafa