Speak Magazine

Field Notes

How Tanzania is failing its students

By: Brielle Morgan

Every November in Tanzania, hundreds of thousands of Form Four (or Grade Ten) students make millions of tiny pencil marks and ooze litres of sweat during their final exam. If they score high enough on the Certificate of Secondary Education Exam, they will qualify for A-Level education (Grades 11 and 12).

Last year 60 per cent of Tanzania’s Form Four students failed this test.

Janeth James was one of the scribbling, sweating students. The 19 year-old Dar es Salaam resident didn’t fail the test – but she almost did. Her Division Four score meant she couldn’t advance to Form Five.

“I was in a panic because I was in a difficult situation. I didn’t plan for that. My family comforted me. They said I didn’t fail life and I can do other things.”

Determined to further her education, James is now studying procurement and logistics at The National Institute of Transport, a private college.

“I like it,” she says brightly.

But for those with less family support, consequences of a failing – or near failing grade – on the big test can be considerable.

Those who can’t afford prohibitive private school fees or tutoring find themselves hoofing sidewalks, looking for work in a market with far more would-be workers than new jobs. In its 2012 report on youth, the development agency Restless Development found that half the youth they surveyed were unemployed.

Still, things could be worse for students with big, red Fs on their Form Four exams. At least they got some secondary education. While enrollment rates are up at both primary and secondary levels, two thirds of Tanzanians don’t go past primary school – at least in the public system.

Those with the money and the grades to advance through the public system from primary school (i.e. Standards One – Seven) through secondary school O-Levels (Forms One – Four) are therefore the lucky ones.

At least in theory.

While the government is on track to check the ‘universal primary education’ box under the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, the quality of said education is in jeopardy. A 2012 report by the Legal Human Right Centre found that “more than 5000 Form One students who joined secondary schools in 2012 could neither read nor write.”

Low literacy rates are a huge challenge in Tanzania. Uwezo is a literacy initiative looking at rates across East Africa. Their 2011 report found that only one in six East African primary students could pass a basic English literacy test. Tanzanian students scored lower than their neighbours on both the English and Kiswahili tests.

Straddling a balance between English and Kiswahili, between Western influence and national unity, has long been a challenge for Tanzanians. The issue has sparked debate since Tanzania’s most celebrated teacher came to power.

When Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere, affectionately known as, Mwalimu (“Teacher”), was elected in 1961 he aimed to unite a country made up of more than 100 tribes under one common language: Kiswahili. The bilingual education system he introduced formed a cornerstone of this strategy.

Tanzanians have long since debated whether this bilingual system – which uses Kiswahili as the language of instruction in primary schools and English in secondary schools – is best for the country.

Educator and author Birgit Brock-Utne says it’s not. Her 2007 experiment saw some Tanzanian secondary classes taught in Kiswahili while the same teachers taught the same topics in English over a three-month period. She observed these classes, and the notes she took describe two starkly different learning environments.

Of students learning via English lessons, she wrote:

“They learn to obey, learn to keep quiet. They learn that if they do not answer the way the teacher wants, they get punished. They learn to memorise. Some sink into apathy and become indifferent. Some learn that they are dumb, that they are unlikely to succeed and may give up all together. They are learning to fail and become losers…”

Here’s how she described the classroom when the same subject was taught in Swahili:

“[T]he students were encouraged to activate the knowledge they had, build on the knowledge of each other, teach each other and the teacher. This was a lesson of give and take between teacher and students, not only a lesson where the teacher poured bits of knowledge into students’ heads.”

It seems like a huge leap to go from learning English as a subject in primary school to using it as a language of instruction in secondary schools. In Tanzania, the national language is Kiswahili. It’s spoken on the streets, in the workplace, between friends, colleagues, and strangers.

So how can young Tanzanians gain enough exposure to English to qualify for their A-Levels and beyond that the predominantly English-language university system?

Some suggest integrating more English into primary school curricula. Alternatively, the government recently proposed lowering the threshold for passing grades on Form Four exams – but this idea met with backlash from a critical public.

“Sometimes it’s not the students’ poor performance,” James insisted. “The teachers are not taking the responsibility.”

“Teachers aren’t taking responsibility, or the government?” I asked.

“Government and teachers,” she said.

In Tanzania schools are plagued by a lack of teachers, lack of training for teachers, poor pay and benefits at public schools, insufficient curriculum delivery monitoring, and a general lack of resources.

But Form Four students have no time to dwell on all this. It’s November. Time to sharpen their No.2s, swab their foreheads, and hope they score high enough for the ultimate prize: access to a good education.

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