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British and French educational legacies in Africa

The quasi-experiment of arbitrary border design allows for causal interpretation of institutional effects across territories. This column presents evidence on the impact of British and French colonial education policies in West Africa. British flexibility and French centralisation resulted in educational attainment differences that persist – across one border – even among some cohorts of the current workforce.

Britain and France followed two very distinct approaches to education in their African colonies (Garner and Schafer 2006).

  • The British were interested in containing the costs of their colonies and enlisted the help of mission societies to provide education on their behalf cheaply. Missions had considerable freedom in how they ran schools, recruited teachers, taught religion, and adjusted teaching contents to local conditions. Overall, the educational system was decentralised. Furthermore, the first grades of primary schools instruction was in the local vernacular, with English as a subject.
  • French ideology aimed at assimilation; to turn Africans into Frenchmen, education was considered key. Schools could not operate without government permission, they had to employ government-certified teachers and follow a government curriculum, and French was the only language of instruction. The 1905 Law on the Separation between the State and the Churches limited the activities of mission schools, and the state became the main and expensive provider of education.

When newly independent countries took control of schools, they kept essential features of the educational systems. According to this conventional story, the mixed and flexible British system was more apt at increasing enrolment, and literacy.

A cursory look at aggregate figures supports this story. When African countries gained independence, former British colonies had higher school enrolment rates on average than former French colonies (Benavot and Riddle 1988, Brown 2000). A significant educational gap has persisted since then. In 2000, former British colonies enrolled 70% of their school-age population in primary schools, 15% more than former French colonies (Garnier and Schafer 2006). Additionally, former British colonies prompted a larger number of school children to complete schooling, with fewer repeated years (Mingat and Suchaut 2000).

Does the identity of the coloniser really matter?

Attributing educational outcomes to the identity of colonisers may be grossly misleading because Britain and France colonised very different territories.

  • The British had a primarily commercial approach to colonisation; acquisitions were often driven by private companies – the flag followed the trade.
  • The French case was the opposite: the state decided to build an empire reaching from Algeria to Senegal and the Congo through military conquest.

Overall, Britain tended to acquire territories with a higher potential for trade and commerce in which demand for education was higher and growing faster than in the poorer areas that the French took over. Thus, educational models or institutions ’created by’ and specific to one coloniser may not be the cause of educational differences. Instead, geography might be the important determinant. For instance, one can observe that within west Africa, education tends to decrease as one moves further away from urbanised coastal areas.

The causal effect of coloniser identity

To get at this question we rely on a border discontinuity between a French and a neighbouring British territory (Cogneau and Moradi 2014). While the choice of colony was not random, the exact location of the border – up to some distance – was. In the partitioning process colonisers drew borders without accurate knowledge of the terrain, disregarding local circumstances and cutting through homogeneous geographic, cultural and ethnic entities. Thus, the drawing of borders provides a situation of a quasi-ideal natural experiment, where, by historical accident, individuals with otherwise identical background found themselves randomly divided into two groups: one subjected to French policies and another ruled by Britain.

Discontinuities at the French-British border

Using a new micro level data set of more than 14,000 recruits to the Gold Coast Regiment and to the French army (Tirailleurs Sénégalais) born on either side of the French-British border, we estimated discontinuities in signature literacy, Christianity and nutritional status (heights) from the time of partition to modern times. We complemented the data set with recent survey data.

We looked at former French-ruled Togo and Burkina Faso and British-ruled Ghana (Figure 1). The case of Togo is particularly interesting, because it was colonised first by Germany and then after its defeat in World War I, split into two occupation zones that were then administered as if they were colonial possessions.

Figure 1. Colonisers and borders

At the Togo-Ghana border of 1922 we found the following:

  • No border effects during the time when Togoland’s territory was united under German rule.
  • No border effects in nutritional and health status.
  • No border effects in the northern region. The area’s inhabitants had resisted colonial authorities. Islam was strong among traditional elites (chiefs, traders), on which colonial rule rested. For fear of provoking hostilities, neither coloniser allowed mission societies to engage in these areas. There were also views that Islam would suit the native population, stimulate trade, and help to spread ‘civilisation’.
  • Significant border effects in education and Christianity, starting with partition in 1922 in the southern part of Togoland. The British part of former Togoland caught up quickly and followed then the pattern on the British side of the border as of 1914. The French part lagged behind in literacy, and somewhat less so in Christianity.
  • Signs of convergence after independence; however, a significant 20% gap in enrolment and literacy still exists in cohorts born 1960-1980. The effects are lower and insignificant for Christianity.

At the Burkina Faso-Ghana border we found no border effects in literacy, Christianity, or heights at any time.


Being born close to a school increased the likelihood of becoming literate. We also found a strong discontinuity in the number of schools, and in the reliance of mission versus government schools (Figure 2). Hence, British colonisation resulted in higher literacy rates, mainly because of a heavy reliance on missionary societies. This was a feasible policy in many of the territories that Britain colonised.

We do not conclude that countries are locked in by their past. It depends on whether governments lifted restrictions and expanded school supply. This happened in Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire as early as the 1950s (see the online appendix for Cogneau and Moradi 2014, Cogneau et al. 2014, Dupraz 2013).

Would a Burkina Faso, that was counterfactually colonised by Britain, have achieved higher literacy rates? Probably not.

Figure 2. Location of (at least one) mission and government schools in 1938

Authors’ note: This research was financially supported by ESRC First Grant (RES-061-25-0456), and by ANR programme blanc (ANR- 11- BSH100601).


Benavot, Aaron and Phyllis Riddle (1988), "The Expansion of Primary Education: 1870-1940", Sociology of Education, 61(3), 191-210.

Brown, David S. (2000), “Democracy, Colonisation, and Human Capital in sub-Saharan Africa”, Studies in Comparative International Development, 35(1), 20-40.

Cogneau, Denis, Sandrine Mesplé-Somps, and Gilles Spielvogel (forthcoming), “Development at the Border: Policies and National Integration in Côte d’Ivoire and its Neighbors”, World Bank Economic Review.

Cogneau, Denis and Alexander Moradi (forthcoming), “Borders that Divide: Education and Religion in Ghana and Togo since Colonial Times”, Journal of Economic History.

Dupraz, Yannick (2013), "British and French Colonial Education in Africa: A Spatial Discontinuity Analysis at the Border between French-Speaking and English-Speaking Cameroon", Mimeo, Paris School of Economics.

Garnier, Maurice and Mark Schafer (2006), “Educational Model and Expansion of Enrollments in Sub-Saharan Africa”, Sociology of Education, 79(2), 153-175.

Mingat, Alain and Bruno Suchaut (2000). Les systèmes éducatifs africains, une analyse économique comparative. Bruxelles: De Boeck Université.

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