Tanzania's schools go backwards
"The situation is getting worse, especially in the rural areas where you find that a form one learner in secondary school cannot read and sometimes hardly knows
how to write their name," said Nyanda Shuli, spokesperson for Haki Elimu, an education rights organisation.
In the 1980s, Tanzania boasted a 98% literacy rate – the highest in Africa. This has now dropped to 36%, with a primary school pass rate of just 54%.
Research released last year by Haki Elimu's partner organisation, Owedu, showed that 50% of children completing primary school could not read a passage in either English or Kiswahili, and 70% were unable to do simple arithmetic.
The report blamed overcrowded classrooms and underresourced teachers.
The Michangane Primary School is in a small township outside Dar es Salaam and embodies many of the problems facing the country's education system. But it also shows that solutions are possible.
We arrived at break time. Some children were running around in the sandy playground, while others queued for a daily ration of porridge. The school has only a few classrooms and a small library that could do with more books.
But in the principal's office there were signs of hope. Charts showed the school's increasing pass rates, and photographs of the top 10 pupils hung proudly on the wall.
Headmaster Francis Ngowi said that most of the pupils came from poor backgrounds, and that school was their only escape.
"I just want to offer them the best education so that all of them can finish primary," he said.
Classes at Michangane begin at 6.30am, soon after sunrise. Teaching continues until 2pm. At noon, pupils receive a cup of porridge for lunch – a joint project run by the teachers and parents.
But there is still no guarantee that pupils will pass. The school is short of teachers, children have to share textbooks and classrooms are overcrowded.
"Some children are able to grasp concepts easily, but others take time," Ngowi said. "If you have 100 children in a classroom, it is very hard to see who needs help."
In some ways, Tanzania's education system has been the victim of its own success. In the mid-1980s, only 400 00 children were enrolled in primary school each year. This has rocketed to eight million, and activists such as Shuli say the quality of education has dropped dramatically.
Another worrying factor is the increased prevalence of cheating in the national primary school exam. Last December, Tanzania's Guardian newspaper reported that the government had nullified the results at a Mgulani primary school because of this. According to the newspaper, more than half the 352 pupils scored exactly the same mark in their English exam.
"There have been many cases where teachers bribe invigilators to make sure the children pass," Shuli said.
Later this year, Haki Elimu will publish a new report to highlight the growing problem of Tanzania's illiteracy rates. The organisation hopes that this will push the education ministry to act quickly.
"The government only seems to listen if you have statistics and research," Shuli said. "Other than that, it falls on deaf ears."