In the good old days, when education was for the few who got into primary schools in the first place and then passed the highly competitive exams into the hallowed halls of secondary education, the best schools were government or state schools.
If you were chosen to go to a government school or a private school, you unhesitatingly took the government option, with the possible exception of seminaries, but they were not as dominant as they are today.
So, although we undoubtedly lost many of our best minds because they could not access schools at all – imagine, more than half the secondary schools were in one region only! – once they were in the system, there was at least some form of meritocracy where the best academic minds rose to the top wherever they might have come from.
And, of course, motivation was there, and the bureaucracy, if not, the economy was expanding and needed recruits. Such a situation was not particularly pleasing to the upper class as their kids were not always the most meritorious, and some actually failed to make the grade.
Enter private schools
Hence, the gradual rise of private schools, mainly fairly poor ones to begin with, but in the 1990s, increased and multiplied in Biblical fashion. There was now a class which had benefitted from the World Bank’s largesse in convincing us to turn our backs on ujamaa – and ubuntu.
This made the fees high enough to provide better facilities and sufficient teachers to ensure that the most expensive schools now got the best results at the primary level and – oh, wonder of wonders – better English in a society which still regarded English as their God!
This was after this emergent class, supported by their British friends, rejected the Makweta Commission’s recommendation that Kiswahili be the medium of learning so that all Tanzanian children should benefit from education, not just those with access to English medium environments.
Hence, we have watched the increasing dominance of English medium primary and secondary schools accompanied by an expanding gap between the haves and the have-nots as government allocations to education, although increased, can in no way compete with the fees collected by private schools.
Money is king, and everyone scrimps and saves to get into the moneyed education. No more huge Christmas celebrations; school fees are just around the corner!
The only unfortunate thing, however, is that those in the middle of the class hierarchy have become increasingly unhappy about such a situation. They want the benefit of a money-fueled education but don’t have the money to enter the promised kingdom.
Enter state-sponsored English mediums
Hence, the government is increasingly pressured to open state-sponsored English medium primary schools. Middle-class parents see their wealthier neighbours getting the best results, and they aspire to have children who can access a reasonably small number of jobs dependent on good English, but they are frustrated.
So now we have the government spending taxpayers’ money on schools for the middle class, and I say middle class deliberately, as while the majority of Tanzanian children attending government schools do not pay fees, these ‘special’ government schools, with vastly superior facilities, do have fees, albeit subsidised.
Some new schools are being built, others converted to our favourite foreign language, and parents must find schools further from their homes, making their children more vulnerable.
As far as these middle-class parents are concerned, congrats to them. They may not climb the ladder of those paying exorbitant fees, but they are now several rungs above the majority who will just have to put up with schools as they are.
My concern is with the system as a whole. As my neighbours have children in Form One, I have had a chance to look at the books they use. And I am concerned that we are now getting the worst of all possible worlds.
The textbooks’ writers have to balance catering to those who have been studying in English for seven years or more and those who come to secondary school with practically little or no English.
So, how do you pitch your textbooks and your teaching? On the one hand, you will bore English medium graduates to death who will find the books much too easy.
On the other hand, you will frighten to death the Swahili medium graduates who cannot cope with the language level of the books.
That is why I call it the worst of all possible worlds. You are holding back the English medium kids who can go faster and learn more. Oh yes, they will pass the Form Four exam with flying colours, but have they received any education?
On the other hand, you lose the vast majority of our students. And don’t tell me that a six-week course can bridge the gap.
Of course, some will, but a vast number won’t and so will be condemned to sit silently for four years only to be stamped FAILURE.
A bilingual disorder
This is the problem with our schizophrenic language system, or should I call it a bilingual disorder? Against all the research over more than 40 years and recommendations of language teaching experts, we continue to promote this system when it is clear from our graduates at all levels of education that it is not working.
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Hence, I welcome the recommendation in the new Education and Training Policy 2023 edition that allows schools to request to use Swahili as their secondary medium or at least to do the exams in Swahili.
This does not mean sacrificing English but teaching it properly and systematically so that students complete secondary education better than now with the scattergun approach, which confuses rather than develops their English.
Otherwise, we will continue to use education as our best method of consolidating class differentiation with poor education, which benefits no one, including the patties in the middle of the burgers!
Richard Mabala is an educator, poet, and author. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org or on X (Twitter) as @MabalaMakengeza. These are the writer’s own opinions, and they do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.