In northern Nigeria, Koranic schools are learning English and arithmetic

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Students at Asasul Qu'ran Quranic Primary School in Kano, May 26, 2021.

Children’s songs echo along the powerless corridors of the Asasul Qu’ran Koranic Primary School, located in the Jakara district of Kano, northern Nigeria. Between the walls covered with drawings, around thirty young students chant the days of the week in English, under the delighted gaze of their teacher, Hauwa’u Abbas Umar.

Everything has changed here in recent years, since we introduced English and numeracy into the curriculum, and a child-centered learning method ”, congratulates the mistress in hesitant English. She herself was selected to receive training in basic literacy and numeracy methods, provided as part of Unicef’s Educate a Child program.

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In his office, which overlooks the tight rooftops of the Jakara district, headmaster Hashimu Rabiu Sharifai displays the same enthusiasm for the support given to his school by the United Nations Children’s Fund, whether in the training of teachers or donating uniforms and books to encourage little girls to keep going to school. They are also the majority in this neighborhood school which welcomes a total of 374 students.

Many parents want to educate their children in Islamic schools for reasons of morality and respect for religion ”, explains this jovial man. “There are also fewer students here than in government schools where 150 children are sometimes crammed into the same class”, he continues.

Some 13,000 Koranic schools

Koranic schools are indeed more numerous than public structures in this predominantly Muslim region. Free, they are also more accessible for families. Unicef ​​counts a minimum of 13,000 throughout Kano State and estimates that more than a million children attend these establishments.

The Islamic education system is, however, far from homogeneous, with Koranic schools focused solely on reciting the Koran and modernized Islamic schools in which other religious teachings are integrated.

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At the end of May 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the governor of Kano also announced the ban on schools almajiri, widespread in northern Nigeria. These Koranic schools, which completely escape the control of the authorities, are regularly pinned down for the mistreatment inflicted on their young students, often from other regions in the wake of their malam, their Koranic master acting as teacher, and forced into begging for survival.

Faced with the omnipresence of religious structures, the big challenge is to make the basic subjects of formal education accessible. ” The easiest way is to leave the children in their environment and try to introduce mathematics or English ”, underlines Muntaka Mukhtar Mohammed, education specialist for the Unicef ​​office in Kano.

Over 10 million children out of school

The UN organization launched a program in 2018 to encourage ” the integration “ Islamic schools in the formal education system. “Classical religious education remains, but there is also a space to learn other things”, explains Muntaka Mukhtar Mohammed.

It’s urgent. Around the world, one in five out-of-school children is Nigerian. In the north of Africa’s most populous country, more than 10.5 million children are out of school, even though education is in principle free and compulsory. And girls are particularly affected, since more than half of them do not go to school in the Kano region.

Read also: In Nigeria, Koranic schools take up maths and English

Mistrust of “Western” education has been deeply rooted in people’s minds since colonial times and the arrival of Christian missionaries. “People are convinced that by sending their children to public school, they will be converted to Christianity”, regrets Muntaka Mukhtar Mohammed.

Forging a bond of trust with teachers and owners of Koranic schools is therefore a priority and some experiences are already proving conclusive. In his small office cluttered with documents, Wasilu Adamu thus displays his satisfaction. “The children have a better level today than before the implementation of this training”, welcomes this headmaster at the head of an Islamic school in the town of Dambatta, 70 kilometers north of Kano. This city of 200,000 inhabitants easily has thirty Koranic schools for a single government school.

Target girls

“Our students understand better what we teach them and memorize more quickly”, abounds Mustapha Hadi Sabiu, one of the teachers who followed this training, before summarizing with a laugh: “Now they are learning the Koran well and they understand English well! ” In 2020, 72 students from this primary school – which has more than 590 – were able to continue their studies at college. And some parents now dream of seeing them one day study at the university in the large town of Zaria, further south.

Two teachers per establishment were selected from 420 schools in Kano State to receive the six-day training provided by Unicef. Others are placed in Koranic schools by the local government. “But as there is already a lack of teachers in the traditional system, some are simple volunteers, not qualified, but able to lead the teaching”, details Muntaka Mukhtar Mohammed.

The objective remains to be able to offer basic education to the greatest number by managing to forge links between local authorities and the various communities. And to target particularly girls who, when they are educated, are mainly in this type of establishment.