Education in Tanzania: The Challenges

By Sophie Wilson

Welcome to the first of a two-part post, in which I will be looking at the current state of Education in Tanzania. As volunteers, re-visiting this topic helps us to ensure our initiatives are relevant, well-targeted and addressing a genuine need.


In Part I, I will be asking:-

What are the challenges currently faced within Tanzania’s Education sector?


Whilst my question for Part II will be:-

Which trends present future opportunities for Tanzania’s Education sector?  


In 2007, Tanzania edged ever closer to the goal of achieving universal access to primary education. Moreover, in order to reflect its growing population, the government increased its spending commitment on Education by 55% between 2011 and 2016, as per 2015 recommendations by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child [1].


Primary education enrolment rates peaked in 2009, but had dropped by ~20% by 2012. This was reflected in primary education completion rates. In a similar pattern, enrolment and completion rates for lower secondary education peaked in 2012 – at around 40% for both – before decreasing for a few consecutive years. However, projections for the future are positive [2].


Yet, despite these trajectories, there remain significant challenges within the Education sector in Tanzania, from ensuring equity and quality education to equipping students for entry into a rapidly-changing job market.


Gender parity, teenage pregnancy, early marriage and sexual harassment


Tanzania has achieved gender parity in enrolment for primary education. However, whilst girls are more likely to complete primary education, boys are more likely to transition to lower secondary education [2].


The context of this trend is that expectations for early marriage and pregnancy prevent girls from making the transition. In 2014, a quarter of 15-19-year-old Tanzanian girls were pregnant or had given birth, and a third of all girls were married by the age of 18 [3] [1]. In 2016, almost 3,700 girls dropped out of primary and secondary education due to adolescent pregnancy; it is, however, suspected that this is a “vast underestimate” [1] [3].



School attendance for girls in primary school, such as this student at Mlimani Primary School, is high; but drops at the lower secondary school level


This trend is reinforced by compulsory pregnancy tests in schools. Although not required by law, school rules state that students may be expelled for “offences against morality” [3].


These issues also disproportionately affect girls from less advantaged backgrounds, who are twice as likely to be married at an early age than girls from middle- to higher-income homes [1]. Girls from poor families are also less likely to re-enter education through vocational training or private tuition, which most cannot afford [3].


Girls are also vulnerable as they travel to and from school. They are at risk of physical and sexual abuse, which deters school attendance [4]. If the distance between home and school is too far for daily travel, girls are often forced to rent rooms in temporary accommodation, known as the “ghettos”, which further increases their vulnerability to abuse [4].


Equity and access for all


In this way, ingrained cultural and societal prejudices create significant issues of equity and access for Tanzanian girls, particularly at and above the secondary school level.


These issues affect other marginalised groups, too. An estimated two million children aged 7-13 are out-of-school in Tanzania, many of them from poor families. Primary school-aged children from the poorest families are three times less likely to attend school than those from wealthier families [1].


There is also an issue with retaining students after primary education. The majority of youths aged 14-17 years in Tanzania are not enrolled in secondary school at all, whilst only 3.2% enrol for the final two years [1].


Students with a mental or physical impairment also fare badly. Whilst it is estimated that 7.9% of Tanzanians are living with a disability, less than 1% of children in school have one [1]. In Tanzania, there is currently no system for the identification or assessment of children with disabilities, or means of responding to their needs. For those students who do enrol, attendance is irregular. These students also face a higher risk of abuse.


Youth unemployment and skills mismatch


Youth unemployment in Tanzania is estimated at between 10-15% and observers have commentated that universities could do more to adequately prepare students for the demands of the 21st century workplace [5]. There are two common explanations for why students are struggling to succeed in the job market. The first is that “financial, human capital and infrastructure constraints have a negative impact on the range and quality of skills students graduate with” [6]. The second is that there is a disparity between what is taught in schools and universities and the skills now demanded by the job market.



CDI and Kite DSM, in partnership with local NGO Bridge for Change, run a careers support scheme for school leavers called Career Hub


Proactive, skills-based learning techniques should be promoted over outdated practices such as rote-memorisation, at all levels of the Education system. This is because employers are now seeking graduates who are entrepreneurially-minded, have analytical and problem-solving capabilities, and can successfully integrate into rapidly-changing working environments.


In response to the need to teach more soft skills in school curricula, the Tanzania Institute of Education (TEA) has altered the secondary school curriculum to include new subjects such as computer literacy, unified science and social skills [7]. This is a step in the right direction, but there is still a significant gap to close.


Education quality and resource constraints


Whilst soft skills may be difficult to measure, students’ numeracy and literacy skills are somewhat easier to track. Yet, in Tanzania, children who attend school do not achieve satisfactory foundational learning outcomes [1]. These are critical for establishing a positive trajectory of future performance. According to a study of primary school leaving examinations in 2014, only 8% of Grade 2 students could read sufficiently well and only 8% could add and subtract. A mere 0.1% demonstrated high levels of “life skills” such as those referred to above – skills like self-confidence and perseverance, which play a significant role in whether or not a candidate can navigate the job market successfully [1].



Primary school leaving examinations show low performance in the ‘3Rs’


Increasingly in Tanzania, students are graduating from secondary school without mastering the ‘3Rs’ – reading, writing and arithmetic. In 1986, the literacy rate was 90%, whilst in 2017 it had fallen to 68%. For youth aged 15-24, the rate is 76% for males and 73% for females [8]. This indicates that the focus on enrolment as a government priority may have been pursued to the detriment of high quality teaching.


Resource constraint is also a challenge. At the pre-primary level, the pupil-to-qualified-teacher ratio is 131:1. The ratio is skewed by a 24:1 ratio in private schools, however – in the public schools, it is an astonishing 169:1 [1].


But this is a problem that permeates the Education sector right up to the tertiary level; over-recruitment into universities – or the issue of too many students and too little money – is a common state of affairs across the continent [9].


Enrolment rates in lower secondary education have improved dramatically since 2005, although they lag behind those for primary education [2]. This could be due to the fact that instruction shifts from Swahili to English as students transition into secondary school. This presents a challenge for students with low exposure to English in their early years or insufficient teaching during primary school. One of the Cambridge Development Initiative’s (CDI) pilot projects this year on the Education Team is to introduce an English Club for primary school students, so that they can improve their level of English in preparation for the Primary School Leaving Examination, which determines their entrance into secondary school.



CDI and Kite DSM’s 2018 English Club pilot at Mlimani Primary School, Dar es Salaam


Embracing technological change and new teaching styles


The quality and effectiveness of Education in Tanzania must also adapt to rapid technological advancement. With ‘DIY’, free-to-use teaching mechanisms becoming increasingly available online and via mobile, conventional teaching must adapt to remain relevant and, better still, integrate fully with these new tools so that students can access the benefits of e-learning. There will be more about e-learning in Part II of this blog post.


In the words of Stavros Yiannouka, the CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Education, the “traditional industrial model of education” in Tanzania resembles a “standardized batch process… in terms of cohorts, years, process [and] standardised curriculum” [10]. Traditional conservatism must give way to new models of learning and attitudes amongst teachers which embrace change.


Student welfare, emotional wellbeing and corporal punishment


This year, CDI Education have piloted a new initiative with the Health team and Aga Khan University, to conduct research and address emotional wellbeing amongst secondary school students in Dar es Salaam. Mental health is under-serviced in Tanzania and remains a largely neglected and taboo topic. It poses a socio-economic challenge for Development, and is an important component of any individual’s well-being [11]. There is lack of sufficient recourse for psychological distress for sufferers in Tanzania, who turn to traditional healers and faith healers 80% of the time [12]. Adolescents and youth are at higher risk of mental health-related issues and failure to address them can result in poor academic achievement [13].



Adolescents are at higher risk of suffering from mental health-related issues


Visits to secondary schools in Dar es Salaam by the Education Team have also revealed the ubiquity of corporal punishment in schools, which is not prohibited in Tanzania. Students are caned or beaten for many different reasons, such as failure to answer questions correctly or for being late to school. Incorrectly spoken English is also punished, which discourages children from developing proficiency in the language. Corporal punishment in Tanzania also regularly exceeds stipulated guidelines – a 2014 study by the African Child Policy Forum concluded that the “frequency of abuse by teachers… is alarmingly high” and, indeed, personal experience of witnessing long lines of students waiting outside the staff room to receive punishment testifies to this [14].


Corporal punishment is detrimental to students’ physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and also significantly impacts their behaviour, ability to learn and self-confidence. These are critical factors in determining whether a student will stay in school and thrive, or drop out altogether.


This year, the CDI Education Team have designed initiatives intended to address a diverse range of issues, from emotional wellbeing amongst 16-18 year olds, to primary school students’ need to learn English; from low computer literacy rates amongst out-of-school girls to the absent soft-skills and entrepreneurial training that older students require to thrive in the job market.


We hope that our work with CDI will make a small impact towards improving the issues currently faced by the Education system in Tanzania. You can find out more about our 2018 initiatives by visiting the CDI Education website.


I hope you will join me for Part II of this post, where I consider what trends are shaping the Education sector and how these might present opportunities for students in the future.



Primary school students during break-time at Mlimani Primary School




[1] UNICEF Tanzania. 2018. Education: The Situation.

[2] Education Policy and Data Centre. 2018. EPDC Education Trends and Projections 2000-2025.

[3] Editorial. 2018. The War on Conception: In Tanzania, getting impregnated also means getting expelled from school. The Economist.

[4] David Baines. 2013. Education for a Better Future in Tanzania. African Initiatives.

[5] Amy Fallon. 2017. East Africa’s teeming youth are in a race to acquire skills for a job market that’s left many behind. Quartz Africa.

[6] Seth Trudeau. 2017. Africa’s universities are not preparing graduates for the 21st century workplace. Quartz Africa.

[7] Esther Kibakaya. 2017. When your skills are not relevant in the job market. The Citizen.

[8] Mwesiga Baregu. 2017. Worrying trends of education in Tanzania as illiteracy expands. The Citizen.

[9] Editorial. 2017. More can be less: African universities recruit too many students. The Economist.

[10] Christin Roby. 2018. 5 ways to Innovate Education in Africa. Devex.

[11] Anu Molarius et. al. 2009. Mental health symptoms in relation to socio-economic conditions and lifestyle factors – a population-based study in Sweden. BMC Public Health. 9:302.

[12] The United Republic of Tanzania, & Ministry of Health, Community, Development, Gender, Elderly and Children. 2017. The National Health Policy 2017.

[13] WHO. 2017. Adolescents and mental health.

[14]  African Child Policy Forum. 2014. The African Report on Violence Against Children.



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