Study paints grim picture: Tanzanian lower primary kids not learning at all

Sunday September 18 2011
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Pupils of Malezi Academy in Nairobi learn computer skills in the school’s computer lab. A new study paints a grim picture of literacy and numeracy skills in Tanzanian schools. Photo/FILE

A new study paints a grim picture of literacy and numeracy skills in Tanzanian schools.

The study, released last week by Uwezo Tanzania and Twaweza East Africa, shows that children in primary schools are not learning, a problem that could be filtering up to other levels and weakening Tanzania’s skills base.

Only four out of 10 pupils in Standard 7 in the country can read and understand simple paragraphs in English and Kiswahili and perform the basic arithmetic expected of a Standard 2 pupil, according to the study.

Rural children have it particularly bad as urban children in Standard 3 are twice as likely to have gained Standard 2 level skills as their rural counterparts.
The World Bank says the poor quality of education is seriously hampering Tanzania’s competitiveness in the region.

“Although primary education enrolment is commendably high… enrolment rates at the secondary and university levels are among the lowest in the world (ranked 131st and 136th respectively out of 139 countries surveyed),” said the World Bank in its 2010 Global Competitiveness Report.

The results are not much different from another study last year that first raised the alarm on the poor quality of education in the country.


The study uses assessment tests set at Standard 2 level to measure learning outcomes among children in schools.

“According to our curriculum, Standard 2 is when children should master the basics of reading and numeracy. But our assessment has shown that most children complete Standard 2 without having done so,” said Uwezo.

“Only three in 10 Standard 3 pupils can read a Kiswahili story, and only three in 10 can add, subtract and multiply. Scores are worse in English, where only one in 10 can read a basic English story.”

This could be hurting Tanzania’s ability to create skilled jobs and compete in the regional economy. It could also deny it the critical “21st century skills” such as information literacy and ICT literacy, critical thinking, creativity, innovation and intellectual curiosity, which are some of the pillars of a knowledge economy.

“Without an urgent turn-around in the education system, Tanzanians will be hard-pressed to effectively integrate into the East African Community, or create the high-skilled jobs that drive a knowledge economy” said Prof Suleman Sumra, co-ordinator of Uwezo Tanzania.

“There is fear that with greater integration, the Tanzanian market will be flooded by Kenyans and Ugandans. These fears are legitimate, but truth be told, our education system is not delivering.”

A recent report by the Global e-Schools and Communities Initiative (GeSCI), founded by UN’s ICT Taskforce, says that the knowledge society in Tanzania is at a “very early stage”. The Knowledge Index, which focuses on a country’s progress in education, ICT and innovation, ranks Tanzania in position 133 globally, way below the average for Africa.

Representative sample

This year’s Uwezo survey in Tanzania was conducted on a much larger scale than another one in 2010, making it a much more representative sample. Last year, the survey covered 38 districts and sampled 42,000 children.

But this year, the scope was expanded to include all 132 districts in the country, tripling the number of children to 128,000. This year, there were also four separate sets of tests administered to prevent siblings from overhearing and regurgitating answers during tests, which are conducted in a home environment.

“The fact that not much has changed from last year is a problem,” said Sara Ruto, the manager of Uwezo East Africa.
“If children go to school all day with not much to show for it, it means that all we are doing is wasting time.”

One in five teachers in Tanzania was not present in class on the day Uwezo conducted the assessment.

The report notes: “The Uwezo survey also found that school-wide perfect attendance among teachers was relatively rare. Only about one in 10 schools visited had all of their teachers at work on that particular day. More often than not, then, children are going to a school that is operating short-handed.”

Teachers in Kenya and Uganda last week went on strike with different demands. In Kenya, the teachers union wanted an additional 28,000 teachers hired, and in Uganda, teachers were demanding a 100 per cent pay increase.

Tanzania is also bracing for a teachers strike, with the Tanzania Teachers Union (TTU) demanding that the government pay teachers up to $27 million in salary arrears and $11 million for transfers, holidays, studies and medical treatment. TTU president Gratian Mkoba said the union had given the government a 30-day ultimatum, which ends on September 19, to settle the arrears.

Statistics from 2010 show that the gap in educational achievement in East Africa is wide and pronounced, with Kenya in the lead, Uganda in the middle, and Tanzania trailing.

By Standard 7, only about half of Tanzanian children could read a story in English, set at a Standard Two level, compared with 94 per cent in Kenya.
Surprisingly, Tanzanian children were worse at Kiswahili compared with Kenyan children, even though Kiswahili is more widely spoken in Tanzania.

The pattern for numeracy was similar. Twelve per cent of Kenyan Standard 7 children could not do a sum set at Standard 2 level. In Uganda, the figure was 15 per cent and in Tanzania, an alarming 32 per cent.

Only about two per cent of children in Tanzania are enrolled in private schools, but the report underscores that those children who are in private schools have a very large advantage over those in public schools.

“Among children 10 years and younger, there is not much difference between being enrolled in a public school and not being enrolled at all in terms of being able to pass the assessments.”

In other words, going to a public school every day and not attending school at all has the same outcome for children in lower primary school as both are simply not learning.

“Private schools attract the best teachers and the head teachers have a lot of power and can fire lazy teachers, unlike the case in public schools,” says Prof Sumra.

“Also, the language of instruction in the majority of private schools is English, which gives these children a headstart over their public school counterparts who are taught in Kiswahili.”

But it is not all bad news. Enrolment is high in Tanzanian schools, with nearly 90 per cent of children between seven and 16 enrolled in school. This year’s report also shows that girls and boys perform equally well in reading English, Kiswahili and in numeracy, and that parents are increasingly getting involved in their children’s education.

One out of four parents helps their children with homework and a similar proportion has discussed education at a school committee meeting. Four of 10 parents have spoken with their child’s teacher about their child’s performance at least once in the past year.
In addition, the attendance of pre-primary education is on the rise.

The report shows that pupils that have been in pre-primary school perform better than those who have not as they have a headstart in reading and arithmetic. The performance gap closes in secondary school but never quite disappears.

Apart from attending kindergarten or nursery school, other factors that affect numeracy and literacy skills are attending a private school, the socio-economic status of parents and their level of education, as well as whether the family resides in an urban or rural area.

The level of education of parents is highly associated with a pupil’s ability to grasp the basic skills. Over 60 per cent of Standard 7 pupils whose parents both attended secondary school are proficient at Standard 2 level in every subject, compared with just 30 per cent of students whose parents who have no education at all.

Dr Ruto says that more effort should therefore go towards improving adult literacy, because it has such a great impact on children’s learning. “Adult literacy is the forgotten rhetoric of the decade we need to revisit. It’s present in many policy documents but has been sidelined in implementation.”

Dr Ruto says that the Uwezo survey is giving concerted focus to what matters the most in our school systems, learning outcomes. “We are seeing a change from last year, when the Ministry of Education in Tanzania and Uganda were very defensive and largely dismissed our findings,” said Dr Ruto.
“This year there is a lot more acceptance; that this is our problem and we as education stakeholders need to work together to do something about literacy and numeracy levels.”