Reflections on recent site visits to education partners in Tanzania


Our partners in our Grassroots Innovations in Early Learning initiative are implementing a range of innovative approaches to improve children’s early development and learning in Tanzania. Recently, I had the honor of visiting three of these partners, and getting a first-hand look at some of the wonderful work that they are doing. In Dar-es-Salaam, I spent some time with Organization for Community Development (OCODE). OCODE works with communities and local government to improve the learning environment in early primary, focusing particularly on establishing basic literacy and numeracy skills through remedial classes for struggling first and second graders. Many of the students who participate in OCODE’s remedial classes emerge able to read, write, and do math at grade-appropriate levels. What’s particularly great about OCODE’s work is that they approach the issue from all angles – at the school, family, and community levels. They are also active in national education networks engaging in advocacy to improve education policy in Tanzania.

Next, in Mwanza, I had the opportunity to visit Tanzania Home Economics Association (TAHEA). In their pioneering Vutamdogo program, TAHEA supports youth groups to engage in income generating activities and establish themselves as community-based organizations. TAHEA also trains and supports the youth to conduct tutorial classes with Grade 1 and 2 students. As a result of their affiliation, leadership, and service as part of these grassroots organizations, the youth report greater self-esteem, increased empowerment, and a sense of belonging, contribution, and respect in their communities. TAHEA has also found that the early primary students who are taught by the youth show considerable improvement in their literacy and math skills. (TAHEA is also our Lead Partner in our Community-Based Early Childhood Development Initiative.)

Finally, in Arusha, I met with the team at Elimu Community Light (ECOLI). ECOLI has established early childhood development (ECD) centers and provides ongoing training and support to the headteachers and teachers at these ECD centers. ECOLI’s approach emphasizes children’s holistic development and the use of teaching and learning methodologies that build children’s understanding of concepts, rather than rote memorization of facts. ECOLI’s teachers seemed to be very effective classroom managers. At the ECD center I visited, the children knew their routines and were able to move from one task to another when they were ready – regardless of other students’ status. As a result, children spent very little time waiting around for the teacher or for other children. During my visit, I also noted that teachers were following up with individual children and providing guidance and support as needed. As a result, children were fully engaged in learning and seemed to be developing a deep conceptual understanding of the skills they were practicing.

There were two major trends that I observed across partners and contexts:

  1. The new government’s announcement of free primary education has resulted in increased enrollment and a shortage of resources at primary schools across the country

First, our partners – and others I met – explained to me that the new government in Tanzania campaigned on and has now announced free primary education for all. This is a wonderful and long-awaited step forward for education equity in the country. However, an influx of students enrolling in school has resulted in severe overcrowding and a stark shortage of teachers, space, and learning materials. In addition, due to the government’s announcement that education is ‘free’, community members have been less willing and/or able to contribute fees for feeding programs and other programs and services for which the government currently has no budget. In this context, our partners are continuing some of their activities, expanding others, and for yet others, they are waiting to see what happens as ‘the dust settles’ on the free primary education announcement.

  1. The education sector’s emphasis on literacy and numeracy overlooks the importance of holistic support for children’s learning

Second, overall in Tanzania there seems to be a push on the “3 Rs” and other academic skills. This seems to be at least in part due to government and non-governmental organizations’ responses to recent Uwezo assessments that demonstrated that masses of primary school students are unable to read, write, and do mathematics at grade appropriate levels. For example, in the latest published results of the 2013 national sample in Tanzania, only 45% of Grade 3 children were able to pass a Kiswahili literacy test, 19% were able to pass an English literacy test, and 31% were able to pass the numeracy test (all tests were at the Grade 2 level).

Read more about Firelight’s use of the Uwezo assessment here.

Indeed, the government has recently pushed an education reform approach entitled “Big Results Now” which has increased pressure on teachers and students to demonstrate improved education outcomes. While basic literacy and numeracy skills are fundamental for children’s long-term academic success, there is still a need to support them holistically, especially when they are so young in age and the foundation is being established for their lifelong development.

In the coming months, we will continue to support the critical work our partners are doing to support children’s early learning in Tanzania. We will also be supporting them to engage in different ways with local and national government structures, through a capacity-building partnership with HakiElimu. In addition, we will explore with our partners ways in which they can reflect on, strengthen, and make more holistic the approaches they are taking to supporting children’s learning in early childhood.