Author(s):Getahun Abraham (presenting)

Conference:ECER 2012, The Need for Educational Research to Champion Freedom, Education and Development for All

Network:23. Policy Studies and Politics of Education


Session Information

23 SES 07 A, Europe and Beyond

Parallel Paper Session


Room:FFL - Aula 19

Chair:Robert Lingard


African Education Systems, a Postcolonial Perspective

The purpose of this paper is to critically scrutinize the education systems introduced by colonial powers to Africa. It will attempt to find out about the effect of the present education systems which are inherited from colonialism. It will further investigate what alternatives are available for the countries to change or improve their education systems.


I would like to pose the following research questions that could guide me through the work:


What were the major motives for introducing colonial education systems in Africa?

What happened to the education systems after independence?

Are there needs and possibilities to change the education systems?


A preliminary result of the study indicates the colonial education system was distorted, limited and theoretical (Coleson, 1955; Tikly, 2001). The education was not thought to benefit the colonized people. There was a conscious plan not to allow advanced technological skills to subjects in the colonies (Pankhurst, 1972).

According to Walter Rodney the Belgian government and the Catholic Church’s reasoning for not allowing secondary school education for the people of Congo was, “…The African “native” was to be gradually civilized. To give him secondary education was like asking a young child to chew meat when he should be eating porridge…”  (Rodney, 1989, p.268).

According to him the British used the content of lessons given in some of their colonies for glorification of their royal family. The French put their effort on imposing their language and cultural values to have upcoming elite to forget its own culture and assimilate into the French.  The Portuguese promoted a policy of looking separately on the elite and the ordinary people. They emphasized that the assimilados/civilisados are closer to the Portuguese culture than the ordinary natives (Ibid.). Italians in addition to their language focused on the Roman civilization, their great leaders and other themes that showed the positive aspect of their country.  The history of internal conflicts in their country was deliberately avoided (Pankhurst, 1972).

Rodney says, “…colonial schooling was education for subordination, exploitation, the creation of mental confusion and the development of underdevelopment.”  (Rodney 1989, 264).

Those children who completed higher grades before the brief occupation of Ethiopia were forced to go back to 4th grade, for two major reasons. Firstly, they were told their education in English was not worth anything. Secondly, natives were not allowed to attend classes higher than 4th grade.  According to Pankhurst the already educated elites were undesired by the fascist-colonial regime. Pankhurst writes:

Action against the Ethiopian intelligentsia was conceived even before the           occupation of Addis Ababa. Two days earlier, on 3 May 1936, the Duce telegraphed orders for the summary execution of the so-called Young Ethiopians, who had been mainly educated at universities in Europe, the United States, and the Middle East… (Pankhurst, 1972, p.373).  


To answer the questions raised above, books, articles from academic and other relevant journals, newspapers, etc. were consulted. I used literature on postcolonialism to approach the subject. In addition to texts dealing with general postcolonial perspective, writings with a specific focus on education in Africa were used to understand the past and the present and also in an attempt to predict the future.

As a supplement to the literature, what I heard from elders about schooling during the brief occupation (1936-1941) of Ethiopia by fascist Italy was used. My visit to some African countries also gave me a useful knowledge and experience of these countries which could be relevant for this work. The method combines a literature review as well as heard and observed experiences.

Expected Outcomes

The colonial education system was never meant to develop any of the countries or to improve the life of the people in the colonies. It was dissociated from reality and the daily life of the people in the colonies.

When the colonisers were forced to leave Africa, they made sure that they left the power in the hands of loyal semi-educated local elites who were supposed to continue in their footsteps. So in most of the countries, the same ineffective education system continued with minor modifications.
These education systems needed major improvements. Some of the measures needed were and still are: to increase the use of local languages in order to reach the masses; to produce adequate texts and teaching materials locally; to focus on contents relevant to the local context and integrate themes that could provide sub-regional, continental and international perspectives; and the education should aim to produce well informed, critical, democratic and productive citizens.


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Author Information

Getahun Abraham (presenting)
University of Karlstad
Institute of Educational Sciences