More than two out of every three pupils who have finished two years of primary school in east Africa fail to pass basic tests in English, Swahili or numeracy, according to a new report, Are our children learning?.
The survey by Uwezo, a civil society group that monitors educational achievement, said despite significant gains in enrolment, pupils are not learning core skills expected at their age and grade level. “While access to education has expanded, the quality of education has stagnated and may in fact have deteriorated further,” said Uwezo, which means “capability” in Swahili.
The report found large differences in average test scores between countries in east Africa. Kenyan pupils perform best in literacy and numeracy. Ugandan children perform worst in the lower school years, but slowly overtake Tanzanian children and outperform them after six years in school.
The report found significant differences in average test scores among districts within east African countries, with large disparities in all three countries. There are minimal differences in test scores between boys and girls. Poorer pupils do worse everywhere, with children from disadvantaged households performing worse in all tests at all ages.
In a finding likely to fuel the debate on public versus private schools, the report said students in private schools perform better than pupils in state schools in all three countries â€“ a difference particularly marked in Tanzania, where the pass rate among 10 to 16-year-olds for numeracy and literacy tests was 47% in state schools, compared with 75% in private schools.
“In part, the difference between Tanzania and the other countries is likely to be driven by the much smaller share of pupils attending private schools, even among the non-poor, suggesting they must be particularly selective,” said the report. In Kenya, the pass rate in private schools was 83%, compared with 75% in government schools, while in Uganda the gap was 53% to 36%.
The 2011 surveys tested literacy and numeracy skills of about 350,000 children aged between six and 16 in more than 150,000 households across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. In the literacy tests, children were asked to recognise a letter from the alphabet, read a word, read a paragraph, and read and understand a short story.
The test was in English, which is taught as a subject and is the language of primary leaving exams in Uganda and Kenya. In Tanzania and Kenya (but not in Uganda) a further literacy test was administered in Swahili.
In the numeracy tests, children were asked to recognise numbers and perform basic calculations â€“ addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Less than one in three children were able to pass the Swahili test (32%) and numeracy tests (29%). Only one in six passed the English test (16%). Less than one in six passed both the literacy and numeracy tests (15%).
“These results imply that the vast majority of pupils are not acquiring basic competencies during the early years of primary school as expected in the national curricula,” the report concluded.
Uwezo urged politicians, NGOs and educators not to throw more resources at education “when in fact the key problem may be the choice of interventions rather than the lack of resources”. The report called for a move away from “inputs”, such as classrooms, the number of qualified teachers or enrolled pupils, to outcomes: “not how many desks are there but can Juma read”.
Noting that little has changed in classroom teaching in decades, Uwezo said: “It may be worthwhile to consciously create a culture and room for ‘disruptive’ ideas and technologies, and test whether innovations and different approaches, such as cash on delivery and others, work better.”
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