Cameroon: schools without teachers, teachers without schools

published 27 February 2006 updated 27 February 2006

Public schools in Cameroon lack teachers while at the same time thousands of qualified teachers are unemployed. This is a regrettable squandering of human resources, all the more so considering that qualified teachers are hard to come by in many other African countries.

Four teachers for six classes – this is the reality at the state school in Balepipi (some 300 km northwest of Douala). Made up of three adobe bungalows, it suffers from a chronic shortage of teachers, as do many schools in Cameroon. Such a situation – which some might consider “normal” for an African country – is particularly regrettable in view of the fact that, at the same time, thousands of qualified teachers are unemployed or have gone on strike to demand the payment of over 30 months' salary arrears. At the end of December, the parents of the students at the Balepipi school did not renew the contract of the teacher whom they had been paying 10,000 CFA francs (€15) per month (7 months a year) out of their own pocket to teach their children. Their hope was to obtain the appointment of a better qualified teacher whose salary would be paid by the Ministry of Basic Education. As they say in Cameroon, “that rare bird never came to roost”, in spite of the fact that the pupils’ parents paid 70,000 CFA francs (the equivalent of the yearly salary of the dismissed teacher) to the ministry’s local official in order to speed up the process. Having waited in vain for a new teacher, the headmaster, who was already in charge of the second-year intermediate class, now also has to teach the preparatory course. In Cameroon, there are officially some 11,000 primary state schools, with 55,266 primary school teachers catering for 3 million pupils. This gives us an average teacher/student ratio of 1:54, well below the minimum standard set by UNESCO, i.e. one teacher per 45 students. Empty promises Justin Nkodo, a statistician who worked on the School Charter project in 2000, highlights some of the bleak realities already observed at the time: “When you leave the towns and travel into the countryside in any direction, you will be able to gauge the extent of the disaster: one-room schools (with a single teacher responsible for six different levels), twinned courses taught by individuals with no appropriate training, establishments where more than 85% of teachers are unpaid volunteers, etc. Reading today’s official statistics, you might think the government is mocking the educational community.” Yet there is no lack of qualified teachers in Cameroon. After the reopening, in 1995/96, of the teacher-training "écoles normales", which had been closed down six years earlier under the structural adjustment programmes, some 20,000 new teachers qualified. However, only 1,700 of these were employed as public workers. Approximately 14,000 were subsequently employed, starting in 1997/98, as temporary teachers with a monthly salary of 56,400 CFA francs (€86), which is paid 10 months a year. All the others (over 4,000) are unemployed. When the teachers were recruited on a temporary basis, they were promised that they would be given civil servant status after four years' employment – a long-unfulfilled promise in the case of the first batch of recruits, most of whom, moreover, are owed between 10 and 40 months' salary arrears. Driven by these grievances, teachers regularly stage work stoppages, demonstrations and sit-ins outside public buildings in an attempt to make the authorities keep their promises.“Budgetary constraints” At the end of 2002, in a speech to the nation, President Paul Biya announced the recruitment of 30,000 teachers into the public service. A plan was then adopted which involved employing all the temporary teachers on a permanent basis and gradually integrating the unemployed teachers. However, the plan foundered on the budgetary imperatives alleged by the minister of finance. According to senior officials of the Ministry for Basic Education, the government decided to freeze the recruitment of teachers in order to comply with the budgetary constraints imposed by the World Bank and the IMF. In actual fact, explains Jean-Paul Njoya (a World Bank consultant for education policies in Cameroon), the international financial institutions “rarely indicate which items of the budget must be reduced. Governments can even object to the guidelines put forward by these institutions.” Together with the Ministry of Defence, the two ministries responsible respectively for secondary and basic education have the largest budgetary allocations. Basic education also receives funds under the Heavily-Indebted Poor Countries initiative, Cameroon being an eligible country. However, the available resources are still inadequate to meet the increasingly pressing needs of the education system.