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Joint approach to early learning accelerates school success for Somali children

UNICEF Somalia/ Pflanz
© UNICEF Somalia/ 2011/ Pflanz
Pupils learn religious studies at Al Najah Quranic School in Hargeisa, where a new pilot project is helping to widen the curriculum to include basic reading and writing.

By Mike Pflanz

HARGEISA, Northwest Somalia “Somaliland”, 28 March 2011 – A year ago, Al Najah Quranic School was so run-down that walls were cracked and when the rains came the classrooms flooded through leaky roofs.

Hard-pressed teachers struggling with a lack of school materials rote-taught Quranic verses to the 90 pupils – mostly aged under 14. Many had to sit on cardboard on the floor.

Today, the number of students has more than quadrupled, there are twice as many teachers, the buildings have been completely renovated and parents are queuing up to enrol their children.

Al Najah, in a suburb of Somaliland’s main city Hargeisa, is one of eight schools in a pilot project aiming to integrate traditional Quranic education with formal primary schooling.

For Somalia’s parents, Quranic instruction is a cherished first step for their children’s education, before they typically moved on to formal schooling.

“But recently we noticed that children were staying in Quranic schools longer and longer, largely because these schools survived the war better than other schools,” said Rashid Hassan Muse, Education Officer in UNICEF.

“Students were there four, five years, up to their mid-teens, but they were learning little aside from Quran studies.”

Many of these schools were in what Mr Muse called “bad environments”, like Al Najah with its leaky roof and lack of chairs and tables. Some were outdoors, under trees, unprotected and exposed.

Most importantly, few covered more than an introduction to the Quran, taught by rote with pupils memorising information. Teachers used canes to punish children who failed to memorize and recite what was taught.

There was no basic reading, writing or maths teaching, and no unified curriculum, meaning that children graduated to primary schooling with vastly different capabilities.


UNICEF Somalia/ Pflanz
© UNICEF Somalia/ 2011/ Pflanz
Girls in class at Al Najah Integrated Quranic School, where religious and secular curricula are taught side by side to prepare children to move on to primary school.

This prompted the new pilot scheme, implemented by Candlelight, a Somaliland-based civil society organisation, in partnership with the Ministries of Education and Religion, with support from UNICEF and funding from UKaid from the Department for International Development. 

It aims to create Integrated Quranic Schools, where religious instruction is still central, but where children are also taught basic literacy and numeracy to prepare them for formal schooling.

“Before, we used to have only Quranic classes here, and then I had to go to another school to try to learn other things,” said Mohamud Farah, 14, a pupil at Al Najah since he was 10.

“Now everything else is taught here as well. It is important to learn the Quran, but with that knowledge you can only become a preacher or an Islamic teacher. When we learn other things, there are many options open to us.”

Said Farah Hassan, Al Najah’s head teacher, says that some parents at first resisted what they saw as a movement away from the school’s focus on Islamic teachings.

“We were able to show them that the religious instruction is still very important, because we need our children to grow up with a strong Islamic culture,” he said.

“But we explained that there is more to learn as well. And once the parents saw the changes here, that this is now a nice place to learn, they were happy to bring their children.”

In Hargeisa, the eight schools signed up to the programme aim to send their pupils to primary school – with basic numeracy and literacy skills – after two years.

The programme ensures quality education for the children through training of teachers and mentoring by education experts from the Ministry of Education as well as provision of school supplies such as text books and learning materials.

For Sarah Hussein, a member of the Al Najah community education committee and a parent of two children at the school, the success of the scheme is already clear.

“There was no resistance to this new system from us,” she says. “We know the value of education because we never had the chance for it. Now it is too late for us, but for our children we have learned that they must not lose their opportunity.”

Beside her Osman Abdi Samad, her colleague on the committee, chuckled.

“Before when we received letters from our relatives in the rural areas, about the cows and the camels, about the rains, we could not read them,” he said.

“Someone who cannot read or write, it’s like they are blind, their senses are handicapped. Now that is gone. Our children are now our eyes for reading and our hands for writing.”

In Somaliland’s rural areas, where Quranic schools are often the only available schools, integrating the formal curriculum in these schools will ensure that more children receive basic education, moving closer towards the attainment of the “Education for All” goal.



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