Bechuanaland's worst education system


In Botswana, as elsewhere, education is seen as the key to success and prosperity in life. Mmegi Correspondent and retired educationist GRAHAME MCLEOD writes, focussing on Botswana’s education system

TONOTA:  At independence in 1966, educational facilities in Botswana were minimal with less than two percent of the population having completed primary school. And only a few thousand pupils were attending secondary schools, which were largely run by missions such as Mater Spei College and St. Joseph’s College. And fewer than 100 students were enrolled in university courses and all of these outside Botswana. And there were then no institutions that offered tertiary education within the country. 

This was because the colonial government had done very little to develop education in the Bechuanaland protectorate. In fact, Bechuanaland had the worst education system of all British possessions in Africa. During this time, education was left almost entirely to missionaries and the merafe. As a result, better-off Batswana sent their children to schools like Lovedale and Tigerkloof near Vryburg, in South Africa. At these schools, the standard of education was high. What a contrast to the present time! Now there are 758 government primary schools, 207 government junior secondary schools and 34 government senior secondary schools. Plus 44 private secondary and 72 private primary schools! The government must be commended for providing basic education for all children in the country, regardless of their background, where they live, their ethnic group, the economic status of their parents... Furthermore, parents on low incomes may not pay any school fees, and for those who do, the fees are very moderate and not exorbitant. And at tertiary level, students have a wide choice of places to study – University of Botswana (UB), Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (BUAN), Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST), Botswana Open University (BOU), Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (Botswana), Institute of Development Management (IDM), Botho University (BU), Gaborone International Professional School (GIPS), Botswana Accountancy College (BAC), Institute of Health Sciences (HIS), Ba Isago University…. The list is endless. And government not only sponsors students at this level but also sponsors many students each year to study at universities overseas.

Education is a basic human right and hence the government has realised that it is one of the most vital investments that a nation can make. All children are entitled to quality education, which will equip them with knowledge, life skills, and qualifications that will enable them to enter the labour force, be productive and make a positive and meaningful contribution to the economy and development of the nation. And such quality education will reduce poverty and disease and stimulate economic growth and this will lead to higher standards of living.

However, it might come as no surprise that such phenomenal growth in the education sector has come with its challenges. And there are many of these. In this series of articles on our education system, we will focus on these and come up with strategies that might be employed to overcome them. Much of what I will write about comes from the experience that I have acquired having worked in secondary schools in Botswana for 14 years and in colleges of education for 21 years (I have also worked as a teacher in Jamaica). And also, from the time that I myself was a pupil at school!

Due to the paramount importance of education, it is no wonder that education takes the lion’s share of the budget when it comes to recurrent expenditure – this includes money that is spent on teacher salaries, payment of utility bills and purchase of student books etc. However, Botswana lags far behind in its development budget for the education sector.

Such money could, for example, be used to build new classrooms or schools, and the provision of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) infrastructure in schools.

Therefore, for the reasons stated above, it may come as no surprise that one major issue of concern today is the poor performance shown by our pupils in their final examinations – PSLE in Standard 7, JCE in Form 3, and BGCSE in Form 5. And the results have been declining over recent years with no real signs of any improvement. In my opinion, the situation is more pressing and critical at the junior secondary level since it’s the JCE results, which are most dismal. The JCE results for 2019 bear this out – only 38% of pupils obtained A, B or C grades, whilst the remaining 62% performed poorly only obtaining grades D, E and U. And this despite all the tests and exams that pupils write at school – three sets of exams a year plus end of month tests! Even though Botswana has one of southern Africa’s riches economies, our pupils still perform poorly compared to those in neighbouring countries.  Now final year examination results reflect, to a certain extent, the quality of education in the country. People complain that our present education system fails to equip our children with numeracy, literary and basic life skills. Hence, it is not surprising that so many school leavers end up roaming the streets and idling and getting into bad company. As the saying goes: “The devil finds work for idle hands to do.” That work might be stealing, gender-based violence (GBV), rape, prostitution… The results are even worse in the rural areas where formal employment opportunities are scarce. Here most schools seriously underperform year after year. But why is this so if schools across the nation are resourced in the same way? For example, a teacher at a junior secondary school in Seronga will have the same qualification as his counterpart in a junior secondary school in Gaborone – a Diploma in Secondary Education. The reasons are complex and we cannot simply place all the blame on the government; in fact, in most developing countries urban schools outperform those in rural areas. That is reality!  In rural areas, most people work as farmers on the land and do not have access, chiefly in the form of qualifications, to well-paid white-collar jobs that are to be found in urban centres such as Gaborone and Francistown. And by its very nature, farming is a high-risk business where Foot and Mouth Disease, crop failure and drought are all too common and may so easily result in low yields.

And we cannot change the climate to reduce such problems! And in areas, such as Ngamiland, wildlife conflict, especially with elephants, may lead to a further decline in yields. This means that these farmers, many of whom are subsistence farmers, generally have a low standard of living. Therefore, they will have only enough cash to buy the necessities of life – clothes, shelter and food. So, there will be little leftover for a TV, Internet or books, resources that can assist their children in their learning. Also, many small settlements do not have access to electricity; after all, we cannot run power lines to every compound in the nation. For this reason, children may find it difficult to do their homework at night using a paraffin lamp or candle! In contrast, in urban areas, such things are the norm.

And in the rural areas, many Batswana still follow the traditional three-site system way of life. This means that parents may divide their time between village, lands and cattlepost. For example, they may spend the cool season in the village, most of the summer at the lands, and any time of the year at the cattlepost. In the 1990s, I was a teacher at Matshekge Hill Secondary School in Bobonong. At that time, the school was on the margins of the village and Friday afternoons I would see hordes of children walking out of the village. And on Sunday afternoons, I would see the same children returning. When I asked the villagers where they went to at weekends, they would say the lands or the cattlepost where one or both parents would be staying. And during the week, the children would stay in one room or a hut in the village with either a brother, sister or even alone.  This means that there would be no parental guidance and no one to encourage or assist them in their schoolwork. This might so easily result in the development of bad habits in their children, which, in turn, may result in a decline in their performance at school. And many young girls might get pregnant and drop out of school. Also, once they deliver their babies, caring for them may be exhausting and time-consuming and they may never return to school. And even if they should continue with their education, they will probably perform more poorly than if they did not get pregnant in the first place.  But that is not all! We also have to consider what education parents have received themselves. Many rural farmers may have left school at the end of Standard seven and so may not be able to assist in their children’s homework. So, they will not be in a position to help their child solve a quadratic equation or to check his English essay for spelling and grammar! In contrast, most parents in urban areas will be better educated and so will be in a better position to assist their children.

Children in rural areas also face other challenges. They may have poor access to health facilities, clean water and sanitation. And their parents may not have enough money to be able to clothe them adequately; not wearing warm clothes in winter is not conducive to learning! Also, many children may live far from their nearest school and so may have to set off early to walk several kilometres there; in winter, they may have to leave home in the dark.

Many people want to believe that only government has a role to play in the education of our children. However, there are actually six stakeholders involved in educating our children. They include the government (Ministry of Basic Education and the Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology), school management, teachers, pupils, teacher trainers and parents. And all of these have to play their part to ensure that our children are well educated.  If one of these players does not do so, then it’s like a chain with a broken link – the chain can no longer fulfil its purpose! So, we should not play the blame game and put all the blame on government for all the failings that we see in the education system today – we are all responsible in the teaching business! In this series of articles, we will look at the roles of each stakeholder and how they are actually performing today.

The education system in Botswana consists of four components: primary, junior secondary, senior secondary and tertiary education. But in my opinion, it is the junior secondary schools that are most neglected and where much needs to be done to improve educational standards. So, these articles will focus on this sector; but that is not to say that other sectors are in good shape! All clearly need lots of TLC – tonnes of loving care!


*Grahame McLeod is a retired educationist.

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