“Education is key. As foundations go, there is none more important than this one – in achieving progress as well as in sustaining it,” wrote Waly Wane who is an Economist at the World Bank and a blogger on “Africa Can … End Poverty.”

I recently wrote an article on education that analysed some of the recent gathered statistics in the context of Africa. Here is the article if you would like to refer back to it: (http://theafricaneconomist.com/the-state-of-education-in-africa-invites-cautious-optimism/#.UMF38ZPjlro). This article is specific of Tanzania but much of what I will be saying here will be applicable for most African countries. I will let you judge that.

The introduction of free primary education in Tanzania happened in the year 2001. Since adopting universal primary education, Tanzania has achieved significant progress in improving access to basic education. Primary school attendance of children aged 7 to 13 years increased from 54 percent in 1999 to about 80 percent by the year 2010. Despite this success, there remain many challenges with regard to education in Tanzania. For one, Tanzania still has one of the lowest primary-to-secondary transition rates in sub-Saharan Africa (at just 41 percent in 2009), with girls being particularly disadvantaged. In addition, standardized assessments have revealed that the quality of education is insufficient to provide students with the most basic numeracy and literacy skills. According to the World Bank, Tanzania scored much lower than Kenya or Uganda in these assessments in 2011.

In his blog on the World Bank’s page, Waly Wane explains that not only does Tanzania still lag in terms of educational outcomes compared to neighboring countries but also the quality of education varies tremendously depending on where you live in the country. Here are some statistics that should keep your mind pondering:

– The best performing schools are found in the urban centers, such as Iringa Mjini, Bukoba Urban and Arusha. In these districts, students in Standard 7 scored on average 97-98 per cent in math, 88-91 per cent in English and 97-98 per cent in Kiswahili when being tested on a Standard 2 exam.
– In contrast, schools in rural areas such as Chunya, Kibondo and Tunduru reported math scores ranging from 50 per cent (Chunya) to 78 per cent (Kibondo, Tunduru), and only obtained a dismal 44-47 per cent in English, and 75-83 per cent in Kiswahili. Many Standard 7 students in these districts hence have not grasped even the Standard 2 curriculum. This is shocking.
– As I mentioned in my previous article, disparities in learning outcomes emerge from the very beginning of the education cycle: Already in Standard 3, students in urban areas such as Iringa Mjini perform twice as well in math as those in Kibondo (82 per cent vs. 40 per cent – again, based on a Standard 2 exam), almost five times as well in English (61 per cent vs. 13 per cent) and more than 2.5 times as well in Kiswahili (83 per cent vs. 33 per cent).

– And inequalities are not confined to primary education. The share of children who passed the 2011 Certificate of Secondary Education Examination (CSEE) is between just 2 per cent (e.g. Simanjiro and Mbulu districts) and 24 per cent (Makete) (see http://developmentseed.org/tanzania-bank/#performance for further details). All these districts are predominantly rural.

These children (urban vs rural) may only be a day’s drive from each other, but they are worlds apart in terms of the quality of education they receive.

What on earth could explain these variations in learning outcomes?

A major explanation is found in the current distribution of resources across districts and schools. As expected, districts with more resources and teachers (per student) are also more likely to deliver better education services and therefore outcomes. However, there is some limit to this logic since one additional teacher in an already well-served district will likely have a lesser impact on service delivery than one more teacher in an under-served district.

But money alone cannot explain cross-district variations in school performance. The districts of Ruangwa and Kilombero, for example, report approximately the same level of public (recurrent) spending per capita on primary education yet exam results in 2011 are much better in Kilombero than in Ruangwa (with an 8 percentage points difference in test scores of students in Standard 7). Other factors are obviously at play. These include:

– The quality of financial management in the local education system and/or the school.

– Teacher productivity. Teacher absenteeism is a widespread phenomenon, with 20 per cent of teachers in rural schools and 36 per cent of teachers in urban schools reported missing during an unannounced visit.
– Family involvement in the children’s education. This too is a very important determinant of success or failure in school.

Recently, the Tanzania’s government has contemplated a price ceiling on the price of education at private schools. A price ceiling is a maximum legal price for a service or a product set by the government. The rationale for a price ceiling on school fees would be to make education services provided by the private sector more affordable. No one would deny that more access to education is critical for Tanzania’s development.

However, simple supply and demand theory tells us that, unless the government would be willing, and able, to subsidize private education, such a ceiling would cause a decrease in private schools and a decrease in the quality of educational services provided by those remaining schools. Whoever has lived under price ceiling should not need training in economics to know that price ceilings lead to shortages, rationing, and deterioration in the quality of goods and services, and corruption.

Tanzania’s economy, like most of Africa, is growing, that has no question, but the opportunity to achieve broad based development could be missed. Indeed, education is key. As foundations go, there is none more important than this one – in achieving progress as well as in sustaining it.

Good quality education should not be a previlege enjoyed by only those in urban areas, private schools, or boys – it is a necessity for all.

Subscribe to The African Economist to read articles via email

Picture by CNN