15 Sep 2011

Are our children learning?


Let's start with the good news. If you are a final year (St 7) Primary School student in Bukoba Urban, with parents who completed secondary education and who are not very poor, you went to pre-school and your family speaks Swahili at home, then you have a 95% chance of being able to completed Standard 2 level tests in Numeracy, Swahili and English.

And the bad news: If you are a St 7 student in Kibondo District, with parents who didn't themselves attend school and are poor, the chance of you being able to complete the same tests is only 9%.


This is the kind of conclusion reached by a new study published today by Uwezo*, Are Our Children Learning? It's a huge survey of 128,000 children in all districts of Tanzania, with each child taking three short and simple tests - in Swahili, English, Numeracy, in line with the Tanzanian curriculum for Standard 2. They did something similar but smaller last year, and have now taken the idea nationwide.

The findings are pretty shocking. Lets be honest, even the first example above  - the "good news" - is not exactly wonderful. It's asking how many children with all the advantages of having educated and relatively wealthy parents and living in an urban area can pass tests designed for children who are 5 years younger than them, and finds that still some are failing.

And the bad news in this report is plentiful. Some examples:

  • Only 1 in 10 Standard 3 pupils can read a basic Standard 2-level story in English. 
  • Only 3 in 10 Standard 3 pupils can read a basic Standard 2-level story in Swahili.
  • Only 3 in 10 Standard 3 pupils can add, subtract and multiply at Standard 2 level. 
  • One in five teachers was found to be absent on the day Uwezo conducted their assessments. 
But the most shocking conclusion of all, for me at least, is the huge differences between how well children are learning in different parts of the country. The comparison between Bukoba Urban and Kibondo above is especially stark, but a similar story is found all over the country. 84% of Standard 7 pupils in Iringa Urban are able to complete the Standard 2 level tests in all subjects. In Kibondo, the equivalent figure is 14%, and in around 25 districts the figure is less than 30%.

% of Standard 7 students meeting Standard 2 proficiency in all subjects, by district
Going to a private school confers a big advantage - 60% of 13 year olds attending private schools pass the tests, compared to 28% of those attending public school. Living in an urban area helps (51% to 38% of St.7 pupils), having educated parents (67% to 30%), living in a wealthier household (51% to 37%), and attending pre-school (46% to 32%). And even the language spoken at home makes a difference - 44% of Standard 7 pupils who speak Swahili at home passed the tests, compared to 36% of those who use other languages. In fact the only factor examined that doesn't appear to make any difference is gender - boys and girls perform equally across all three subjects. 


Where you're from and family background can make a huge difference
Besides the kind comparisons given here, the report doesn't report in detail on the district-by-district figures, and doesn't spell out which of the various factors listed above are significant even when controlling for other variables. (It's possible that home language use only appears to be a significant factor because wealthier / educated / urban families are more likely to use Swahili at home, for example.) This more detailed and geographical analysis will follow in future reports, and I look forward very much to seeing it. But even without this extra detail, the report is shocking enough.

Finally, I want to end on a positive note. The districts that are doing better here demonstrate clearly that the situation doesn't have to be as bad as it is. We have some examples we can learn from and improve the situation in other areas. If good results can be achieved in Manyoni, then surely they can be achieved in Mpwapwa as well. Why is Singida Urban doing much better than Tabora Urban? The education sector may be struggling, but at least we've got something to build on.



- - - - -
* Disclosure: Uwezo is a partner of Twaweza, which also partners with Daraja on our Maji Matone programme.