23 Sep 2010

Quality versus quantity: The old education debate comes round again

This week saw two announcements relating to education in Tanzania that at first appear to conflict. First, on Monday, it was announced in New York that Tanzania has been awarded a prize for its achievements towards the Millennium Development Goal for education. And then on Tuesday, Uwezo launched a report on educational standards that found, for example, that one in five primary school leavers cannot read at standard 2 level Kiswahili.

Of course there is no real contradiction. Tanzania has put huge efforts and resources into expanding access to both primary and secondary education, with some pretty impressive results (as Uwezo acknowledges), as long as the results you are talking about are increases in enrolment rates. If you’re talking about exam results, or the even just the ability to read, write and add up, then the results are much less impressive, which is what the Uwezo report highlights. In other words, Tanzania has done very well in terms of increasing the quantity of education, but not very well at improving the quality. The MDGs focus only on quantity.

Quantity versus quality is not a new debate in the education sector, but rather an old one. Go back 40-50 years and you’ll find that Tanzania prioritised expanding access to the education sector under Nyerere, who put a lot of effort into Universal Primary Education (UPE) while Kenya focussed more efforts on increasing the quality of education. The downside of Tanzania’s approach is reflected in the unofficial rechristening of UPE as Ualimu Pasipo na Elimu (teaching without education). On the other hand, ensuring that every child has at least a basic level of education is a noble aim.

But the real question the Uwezo report raises is not whether it is better to aim for quantity or quality, but whether Tanzanian school children are receiving even a basic level of education. For too many children this appears not to be the case.

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Disclaimer: One of Uwezo's main partners is Twaweza, Daraja's biggest donor.