Bringing back a forgotten generation into education

I’ve been the prophet of doom for some time in education sector dialogue in Tanzania, pointing out that the fairly static school enrolment information, coupled with the rapidly expanding demographics (a fertility rate close to 5 children per woman), means that increasing volumes of children are either never enrolling, enrolling late or dropping out early from primary school. Some recent analysis of the 2012 population census estimates that non-attendance (parent-reported, and usually lower than school-reported enrolment) is high, close to two million of 7-13 year-olds are out of school. An additional 800,000 6 year-olds (over half the population) are yet to enrol in pre- or primary school.

These numbers may be disputed, but they should provide food for thought to the new President, John Magufuli, who is keen to offer free primary and secondary education. How can this strategy be made universal and leave no child left behind?

It was really heartening in November to visit poor rural areas of Simiyu and Mara region in Northern Tanzania, where the DFID financed EQUIP-T programme was tackling this problem head on, through the School Readiness Programme (SRP) initiative.

Recognising three key factors leading to late or non-enrolment: distance from school, poverty and non-Swahili speaking; EQUIP-T has supported the local education managers in 7 regions to establish SRP classes in 1,000 locations. Some in schools, others in communities without schools, they introduce a 12 week course of play, storytelling and interactive learning sessions to prepare 6-7 year-old children to enrol formally in school next year. Using a curriculum prepared by the Tanzanian Institute of Education, based around a series of colourful story books, local volunteer teachers were rapidly trained to lead the classes and develop their own colourful teaching aids and wall hangings.

Each of the SRP classes was expected to take 50, but in many communities over 100 enrolled – in one, my colleagues witnessed over 200 children packed in to an overflowing room. At the class I joined in Mwamigongwa Primary School, there were some children as old as 10; it was tapping an unmet demand for education – if it was made accessible, fun and porridge was on offer!

The SRP classes were very popular and the teachers and communities were very proud of the difference they were making. However, with success comes the problem of successful next steps. How many of these 50,000 extra children will be able to enrol in the 1st grade of primary next term and will the older children be able to learn adequately together with younger children? How will the extra classroom space, resources and teachers needed be resourced and located? Can the community-based SRP classes be upgraded somehow to satellite primary campuses? If not, will the distance to existing primary school deter enrolment? Should new SRP classes be started? If yes, how will the curriculum be differentiated from the full one-year pre-primary curriculum?

These are critical problems I hope EQUIP-T can support Tanzania to tackle; late admission into primary school is very common in rural areas. I visited a 1st grade class where over half the class were aged over 8, and included at least six 11 year-olds. Many will never complete secondary school, especially girls who are often married in their mid-teens. But they all deserve a decent basic education; Tanzania’s future prosperity depends on it.

By Ian Attfield, DFID Education Adviser Tanzania 

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