Traditionally, education in Somalia was connected to the duksi (Koran) schools that instruct students in the Islamic faith. Because Islam encourages reading and the search for knowledge, the duksi schools were responsible for introducing literacy in Somalia. Somali cities like Merka and Mogadishu became Muslim centres of learning.

During the colonial period, the Italians established Roman Catholic mission schools and the British introduced a primary and secondary education system. Only a small percentage of children attended these schools, where instruction was in Arabic, English or Italian languages few students could understand beyond a basic level. After independence, the government developed the official Somali writing system, created Somali - language schoolbooks and introduced a national literacy program. The program raised the literacy level to 83%.

Unfortunately, the civil unrest of the 1990s resulted in the collapse of Somalia’s education system. The literacy rate is now about 30%. A few state-run schools have gradually been reopening in the north and south. In general, Somalis have limited access to education unless they come from wealthy families, who can pay for private school education.

Officially primary school is officially compulsory and lasts eight years. The curriculum includes instruction in basic subjects, plus agriculture and animal raising. However, very few children attend school. Providing education for nomadic peoples has been especially difficult, as herders who wish their children to complete school must send them to a permanent settlement. As well, children in both herding and farming families often must work at home.

Secondary-level education includes four optional years of high school, technical or vocational courses. All secondary schools are situated in towns, limiting access. Before the war, almost twice as many boys as girls attended classes.

Teachers' salaries are amongst the lowest in Somalia; most teachers have been forced to hold down extra jobs. Partly as a result, the school year lasts only six months. After high school, students may attend one of several technical/vocational institutes or Somalia’s only university, the Somali National University in Mogadishu, which was established in 1970.

  Did you know?
An 8th century Somali theologian named Shaykh Uthman bin Ali al-Zeylai wrote the only authoritative text on the Hanafi school of Islam. His book is called the Tabayin al-Haqa’iq li Sharh Kanz al-Daqa’iq. Its four volumes are still in print.