The new nation’s parliament passed the Higher and General Education Bill late Tuesday that all education from primary level will be taught in English.
“This new year, we are teaching our national languages at the pre-school and the rest of the instructions, mathematics or science, all in English, there’s no Arabic. We’ll have Arabic only as a language as a subject”, Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told reporters.
“That’s how it used to be, till it was changed, since 1898. They changed it only in 1989 when they declared sharia (Islamic) law in the whole country”, he said of the former British colony.
The fledgling government faces a host of daunting challenges in building a nation from scratch after gaining independence from the mainly Arab north in July after decades of civil war that left the country in ruins.
After years of fighting and neglect, only 16 percent of South Sudanese are literate, and very few of them women.
The government hopes the move will unify the new nation, which is thought to have over 60 indigenous languages, and also bring it into line with neighbouring countries’ education systems.
“This will also make it easy for the syllabuses within South Sudan to fall within the context of East African syllabuses and universities”, Benjamin said.
Khartoum will still set exams for those already at secondary school for the next three years while the country makes the transition to English, which was made the official language in a new constitution last month, Benjamin said.
South Sudan has around 18,000 teachers, many of them from Kenya or Uganda.
The government plans to train 7,000 teachers to use English as the language of instruction and build 11 national secondary schools covering all 10 of the country’s states.
The new act makes primary education free and compulsory for all in a country lacking basic infrastructure, where only 10 percent of children complete primary school and 64 percent do not attend.
The UN children’s agency (UNICEF) said enrolment has increased from around 343,000 in 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed with the north, to 1.6 million last year.
Benjamin said renovating “crumbling” schools in the underdeveloped nation was a priority that could tempt the largely pastoral nation with many nomadic tribes into investing in education as well as cows.
“”If you build proper schools, they will take their children there”, he said.