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Students’ learning in Tigray is being crippled by the war

Data from the Tigray Education Bureau details the destruction of Tigray’s school system.

War and the government-imposed siege have devastated Tigray’s educational system—a devastation that has harmed students’ learning and thus undermined Tigray’s future. 

The Tigray Education Bureau recently published a damage assessment of the education system in which over 91 percent of schools were surveyed in six zones. As they are not under Tigray’s control, the bureau was unable to access Western and North Western zones. 

The study revealed that 88 percent of classrooms, 96 percent of desks, 97 percent of blackboards, 85 percent of computers, and 87 percent of plasma televisions had been damaged. 

On top of the physical damage, about 2,146 members of the school community have been killed in the war, of whom 1,911 were students and 84 percent were female.  

As the study only covers the time between November 2020 and September 2021, an updated tally of atrocities would certainly exceed the reported figures below. 

Fig 1.: Killed members of the school community

Source: Tigray Education Bureau (2021)

Arrested development

Tigray’s education system has been set back decades by the civil war.

In the 1980s, education facilities in Tigray were scant and the majority of students learned in classrooms without sufficient equipment, sat on benches made of mud, and had no access to textbooks or a library.

Much like in the 1980s, students in Tigray are now learning in schools that have been damaged by heavy artillery and shrapnel. They sit inside half-burned classrooms where chairs, blackboards, desks, computers, and plasma televisions they once relied on have been looted or destroyed. 

Moreover, many students come from bereaved families that have lost at least one member to the war, while some narrowly escaped death, torture, and rape.  

Enrollment decline

The Incheon Declaration adopted at the 2015 World Education Forum indicated that “a large proportion of the world’s out-of-school population lives in conflict-affected areas.” 

In line with this, the data by the Bureau indicate that the level of student enrollment has declined dramatically in Tigray.

Almost 1.39 million students in general education (K-12) are out of school. The gross enrollment rate for primary schools, for example, declined from 85.5 percent in 2020 to 20.8 percent in 2021. 

The causes of this escalating dropout rate include war, insecurity caused by shelling and bombardment, and the ongoing siege.

In schools that have resumed classes, the conditions are extremely rough for teachers and students. The average distance between home and school for students in primary school has increased almost threefold, from 2.5 kilometers in 2020 to 7.3 kilometers in 2021.

Given the famine conditions, many students are forced to travel this distance on an empty stomach. Once they arrive at school, students are likely to experience the nightmares of the war given that some compounds are also used as makeshift graveyards and mine zones. 

Teacher shortage

Amid the war, the declining number of teachers has also reached a crisis point.

The indiscriminate killing of civilians and the federal government’s siege pushed many teachers to join the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), as many of them decided that going to the battlefield is the only way to reverse the current situation in Tigray.  

Owing to this and the dangers associated with returning to class, the pupil-teacher ratio is likely to increase in the reopened schools. 

The Tigray Education Bureau’s rough calculation of the student-section ratio revealed that the number of undamaged classrooms to the existing number of primary school students in grades one to eight reached 1:434 in 2021.

Teachers are now forced to have a large number of students in each class, which negatively impacts their ability to closely monitor students’ progress.

Furthermore, teachers in the reopened schools are working amidst life-threatening hardships—they have not been paid for over a year, and many don’t have enough food.

Education stunted

Even in the absence of a war-torn environment, students’ learning has been overlooked in past decades. Attention was given to schooling, which focuses on the mere completion of a class grade, instead of learning, which includes the proper acquisition of necessary concepts and skills. 

A national learning assessment done prior to the war revealed that the majority of students scored below 50 percent. 

In 2010, from 25 to 69 percent of grade two students and 25 to 61.8 percent of grade three students in six regions (Somali, Amhara, Tigray, Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia, and SNNP, which then included Sidama) were incapable of comprehending a single word when reading.

War and political turmoil have exacerbated such pre-existing problems. 

Anecdotal observation of schools that resumed regular classes in Tigray revealed that most students don’t demonstrate the learning competence that is expected at their grade levels. 

The closure of schools for two years, from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic until the end of 2021, coupled with the psychological trauma of the war, has caused ‘learning loss’ among students. 

Learning loss is a condition in which students forget a concept, skill, or behavior taught before a certain period of time, such as before a summer break or, in this case, a war. 

Diverted focus

Concerned about their survival and the turbulent socio-economic environment, teachers, administrators, parents, and students are incapable of focusing on educational objectives. 

The learning crisis is exacerbated by starvation, psychological trauma, and health insecurity. Teachers and students, like the rest of the community, are being starved and often show up to school without eating a proper meal.

Cognizant of these challenges, attention has been diverted from learning achievements to mere school attendance. 

School principals are preoccupied with activities designed to heal teachers and students from the war trauma, and must also deal with multiple stakeholders to solicit funds to support the schools and ensure people are fed.

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As a result, attention to instructional leadership will decline and teachers are likely to give less attention to the effects of their teaching on students’ learning. 

The reopening of schools may ‘thicken’ the data on the number of students that go to school. However, given the consequences of the war, students’ learning will not improve. 

Quantitative indices related to the number of children in school, the number of students promoted from one grade to the next, and the teacher-student ratio are important, but do not reflect qualitative traits such as changes in behavior and development of skills.

Rethinking objectives

Therefore, parallel to the school reopening process, stakeholders need to give due attention to students’ learning. 

In doing so, teachers and school leaders need to think beyond test scores when it comes to evaluating learning achievements. Students’ capabilities in non-academic areas, such as innovation, assertiveness, and resilience, need to be integrated into the assessment criteria.

Moreover, when the school environment becomes harsh, as it is now, learning among peers may be an effective approach. The evolution of locally adaptable mechanisms, such as student networking tailored educational programs, may help curb the learning crises in Tigray. 

The development of special television and radio programs could also contribute to the improvement of students’ learning. 

In short, the government and the school community need to be creative and use all paths that enrich students’ learning despite the many inhibiting factors.

Lengthy rebuild

Tigray’s educational system was built over a period of three to four decades. As such, it will take many years, if not decades, to reconstruct schools that have been demolished and replace teachers who lost their lives in the war or fled to other areas to escape its ravages.

For example, it may take three to five years to construct the physical apparatus of a primary or secondary school. But furnishing that school and installing amenities, such as laboratory setups, will take even longer. 

Given the enormity of the task at hand, aside from the restoration of peace and order, the cooperation of multilateral and bilateral organizations with local actors is needed to rebuild the schools and the education system.

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Main photo: A student writing on a blackboard in a classroom of a school in Tigray; 2018; Betsy Arce; Unsplash.

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