Islamic Education System in The Gambia

Country Profile: Gambia


1,660,000 (2011 estimate)

Poverty (Population living on less than US$1 per day)


Official Language


Other recognised languages

Mandinka, Bambara, Wolof, Pulaar, Soninké and Jola

Total Expenditure on Education as % of GNP


Primary School Net Enrolment/Attendance



Programme Overview

Programme TitleIslamic Education System in The Gambia
Implementing OrganizationGeneral Secretariat for Islamic Arabic Education (GSIE) within the Ministry of Education

Context and Background

Despite being grossly under-rated and even marginalised during both the colonial and post-colonial era, Islamic schools or Madrassas have played a critical role in promoting access to basic education for all in the pre-dominantly Muslim society of the Gambia. The role and importance of the Madrassas in this regard and especially among marginalised communities has improved significantly since the 1960s primarily because the schools are easily accessible to all and therefore play a major role in shaping the moral, spiritual and intellectual development of young people and adults while, on the other hand, the institutionalised Western-type public or formal educational system is viewed as an instrument of cultural domination and social disintegration. In addition, the flexibility of the non-formal teaching-learning approach that is widely employed by most Madrassas is convenient and attractive to the less privileged and often marginalised populations who are invariably forced to combine the pursuit of education with the search for basic livelihoods. As a result, hundreds of thousands of children, out-of-school youths and adults have enrolled in Madrassas over the years. More specifically, between 2003 and 2004, Gambia had about 162 Madrassas with a total enrolment of 55,685 learners (28,234 males and 21,859 females) and about 20% of school-age children are currently attending Madrassas.

In response to the significant contribution of the Madrassas in promoting access to basic education for all, the Gambian government has instituted concrete policy measures in an effort to transform and modernise the schools. Thus, as part of the process of implementing the Revised Education Policy (REP, 1988-2003), the government instituted a unified national syllabus or curriculum for basic education to be used by both public and Islamic schools in the country. The State also established (in 1996) the General Secretariat for Islamic Arabic Education (GSIE) within the Ministry of Education and tasked it to spearhead the transformation and modernisation of the Islamic education system by providing the Madrassas with financial and technical support as well as by unifying or standardising the curricula, teacher training, examinations and certification processes. The main objectives of this process were to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the Madrassas (as well as public schools); to widen the scope of Islamic Education to include technical and vocational skills training and to align the Madrassas’ educational activities with national development goals.

The Madrassa System of Education

Within the Islamic world as in the Gambia, Madrassas are regarded as centres of higher learning whose main goal has, traditionally, been to promote the moral, spiritual and intellectual development of learners through the intensive study of the Koran as well as the dissemination of knowledge and skills that would help the learners to live in conformity with basic Islamic value systems. As such, ‘traditional’ Madrassas offered a conventional Islamic school curriculum centred on the study of the Koran and, often used different syllabuses and text books than those used by public schools. Ironically, some of the teaching-learning materials and indeed the syllabuses themselves had little relevance to the learners’ existential needs or national developmental goals. However, in recent years and especially following the institutionalisation of the REP (see above), Gambian Madrassas have been considerably reformed and, as such, the schools’ curriculum, management systems and teaching-learning approaches have also been modernised.

The Curriculum of ‘Modern’ Madrassas

As noted above, the government of the Gambia has instituted a unified and integrated curriculum for all educational institutions and levels of learning. As a result, most Gambian Madrassas now provide in-depth instruction in a wide range of core subjects of the secular national curriculum, including:

It must, however, be re-emphasised that in spite of these changes, evidence from the ground suggests that because the State (through the GSIE) allowed school administrators greater flexibility with regards to the prescribed time allocations per subject area, most Madrassas continued to emphasis Islamic (religious) studies at all levels and particularly for graduates with insufficient vocational skills training as it is considered to be central to the needs and wellbeing of both the learners and the broader society.

Aims and Objectives

Governance and Management of Madrassas

Most Gambian Madrassas are operated by private individuals, communities or Islamic organisations with technical and financial support from the Ministry of Education (see below). However, most Madrassas have established School Governing Bodies (SGBs) or School Management Committees (SMCs) comprising of, for example, professional teachers, parents, Islamic scholars and local community and business leaders. These Committees are responsible for the day-to-day management of the Madrassas. The participation of local communities in the governance of local Madrassas is not only intended to strengthen ‘School-Community’ partnerships but also to enable the Madrassas to enhance their teaching-learning efficiency, accountability and management systems as well as to align their educational training activities with the needs of the communities they serve.

Financial and Technical Support

The main source of funding for most Madrassas is the school fees paid by the learners’ parents or guardians. These fees vary according to school grades or levels and school location (rural or urban). However, as a general rule, most Madrassas only charge nominal fees averaging about US$2 per month per child or learner because the schools consider it their moral obligation to facilitate access to education for all and, most importantly, to promote the spread of Islam through access to education. In addition, some Madrassas also operate income generation activities (mostly by employing learners in lieu of fees) in order to generate additional funds and thus to be self-reliant.

The Gambian government, through the General Secretariat for Islamic Arabic Education, also provides the Madrassas with additional financial and technical support to enable them to, for example, procure teaching-learning materials, uplift their standards and promote institutional capacity building activities (including the provision of in-service professional training services to teachers). Such support is intended to fulfil the government’s declared policy that:

The Madrassas will be supported and strengthened to cater for children whose parents opt for instruction in these institutions. Such support will include the provision of teachers of English language, instructional materials, upgrading and training of Madrassa teachers for quality assurance.

In addition, most Madrassas also receive further support from national and international Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) such as the Muslim Agency, the Muslim High School Association; the Islamic Solidarity Association for West Africa; the United Nations Population Fund, the Commonwealth Education Fund, and Action Aid.

Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

Teaching-Learning Approaches

As in the conventional public of formal school system, the Madrassa system operates a 6-3-3 system of education. As such, children attend six years of Primary schooling / Lower Basic / Primary School Level (grade 1 to 6); followed by three years of Junior Secondary Schooling / Upper Basic/ Junior Secondary School Level (grade 7 to 9), and finally, three years of Senior Secondary School / Senior Secondary School (grade 10 to 12). And unlike traditional Islamic schools which use multi-grade teaching, most Madrassas employs single-grade teaching strategies at every grade or level as a means teaching-learning efficiency and effectiveness.

Assessment of Learning Processes

Within the Madrassa system of education, the evaluation of the teaching-learning processes and, in particular, the learners’ performance and achievements is conducted through a continuous assessment process involving the use of daily or weekly practice exercises, end-of-term examinations and end-of-year national examinations at the completion of Grade 6, 9 and 12. With regards to the latter, all learners sit for the national examination at the same time and selected teachers (examiners) assemble in one place to mark the learners’ scripts. Senior teachers validate the marked scripts, after which the results are published. The results of these examinations are used to determine the learners’ promotion to higher grades but as a rule, learners have to pass all subjects before they are promoted to a higher grade.


The Madrassas have widened access to education for all in the Gambia and particularly within low-income rural and urban communities primarily because they are less expensive than public schools. As noted above, the transformation and modernisation of Madrassas has resulted in an increase in the enrolment of both male and female students and, as a result, about 20% of school-age children are currently enrolled in Madrassas. Most importantly, the Madrassas have opened up educational opportunities for females and marginalised communities, thereby reducing gender and regional disparities with regards to access to education. In light of this, it is therefore apparent that the Madrassas have made and continues to make significant contributions towards national efforts to increase literacy rates.


Despite the impressive progress that has been made to date to transform and modernise the Madrassas as well as aforementioned achievements, the schools continue to be encumbered by numerous challenges, key of which are:

Lessons Learnt

In light of the foregoing, it is apparent that Madrassas play a critical role in promoting access to education for all in the Gambia and as such, increased technical and financial support from the State and NGOs is necessary in order to enhance their efficiency and effectiveness. Equally important, technical support with to, for example, best school management practices, best teaching-learning methods and integration of vocational and technical subjects into the school curriculum, is also needed to transform and modernise the Madrassas so as to align their educational activities to the learners’ needs, world of work and, more broadly, to national developmental goals. Furthermore, there is also need for increased capacity building support since most Madrassas are under-resourced and dependant on under-qualified teachers. Similarly, School-Community partnerships should be strengthened in order to enhance the management and efficiency of the Madrassas. In conclusion, with pedagogical training, strategic planning and public support, the modernized Islamic educational institutions could open more opportunities for marginalised communities to acquire basic education. Interventions in pedagogical training, strategic planning, school management and the infrastructure should deal with the lack of qualified teachers and managers as well as with the lack of material and financial resources.


  1. Educational Research Network for West and Central Africa (ENWACA), 2007: Study of the modalities of Literacy and Non-Formal Education (NFE) Interventions in marginalised Community Settings: The Case of Madrassas and other Koranic Schooling Centres in Gambia, Senegal, Niger and Mali (A Literature Review).
  2. Laouali Malam Moussa & Yves Benett, 2007: A synthesis of studies of Madrassas and other Quranic Schooling Centres in Gambia, Mali, Niger and Sénégal.