Dar es Salaam. Sister Annette Farrel, a Holy Union Sister from Ireland has been working in Tanzania’s education sector since September 1983. With the decades of experience, hers are bold and radical opinions to restructure the education system of Tanzania for the betterment of its people.
Currently the Director of the Holy Union Sisters Debrabant High School in Mbagala, Dar es Salaam, a school she helped set up in 2000, Sister Annette argues in this republished interview with The Citizen that the education system is supposed to cater for the needs of students with various capabilities. She’s apparently troubled that what needed to be done to improve the quality of education in Tanzania education not happening. Excerpt…
You’ve been working in Tanzania’s education system for over three decades. How would you assess its progress?
I can say the country’s education sector is growing in quantity but not universally improving in quality. This is because there are a lot of students but not sufficient planning and investment.
For example, you have one teacher doing the work of three. This is not uncommon, go to any school and you will see for yourself. We were hoping that schools would get more teachers, but that is not the case.
But what specifically are you dissatisfied with the system?
There is one big issue in the education system today but I don’t hear anybody talking about this except myself.
When I came to Tanzania in the 1980s, the secondary section was so tiny that only seminary and a handful of public schools had secondary schools, but there were very good academic programmes.
The programmes suited the people who were chosen to be in secondary schools at that time, the youngsters prepared to be the crème de la crème.
They had to have high academic ability as well as good character and then when they get into seminary they had excellent programs from the department of education and they had books, electricity, a good diet, football and all other things that suit learning. This was not only the seminary but also to the government schools which were very excellent as well.
But today, there is only one programme for everybody.
So children who have no ability in mathematics and no interest are forced to do the same exam as their counterparts brilliant in the subject.
It’s like every child who gets into secondary school is preparing to go to the university.
This programme could perhaps only suit about 10 per cent and neglects the other 90 per cent. I ask myself, what are the curriculum planners doing in Tanzania?
We need comparative education system with various programmes to suit different levels of abilities. In any society, you have a small fraction of people who are geniuses and a fraction of average and below-average but are good at other skills which should be developed.
But in our schools today, there is no regards to drama, arts, music, little regard for sports, and it’s all cramming.
What can be the implications of this one-programme-suits-all system in the country’s educational development?
This system is a disaster in the country’s quality education dream as we are sacrificing the majority for the few.
Just look at the results, it can tell that the current system is not working. It needs a relook and appropriate measures are taken so that the system can work out well for all.
Maybe the government sees the expansion of programmes as expensive, what do you think?
That’s wrong, it won’t make any sense at all to be paying so many teachers throughout the country to produce the kind of results we find in Form Four.
That’s a waste of money, which is expensive in itself.
The children in our schools deserve better and not constantly tortured by programmes that are beyond them and that they are not going to succeed in.
There is this debate on what language should be used as a medium of instruction between English and Kiswahili, what are you for?
I am for both. I strongly believe that there are some subjects which could be taught well in Kiswahili and others in English.
We find so many students are battling and struggling with English and it’s like a fighter fighting with one hand behind our back.
When I was working at the vocational training school in Kunduchi [St Gasper Vocational Training Centre], the language was Kiswahili and it was such a joy to teach, the children knew what they were learning, we didn’t have to translate everything.
I’m not saying that English is not important, English is equally important; it’s the language of higher education and will remain so for a long time to come.
It’s said that Kiswahili is not used as a full medium of instruction because it is not sufficient in terms of vocabulary, particularly, for science subjects.
It’s not true because much of the actual teaching is done in Kiswahili, anywhere, up to university level, most of the conversations and discussions are carried in Kiswahili.
Then if you will ask me why people are raising this point or why that’s not the case [that Kiswahili is not being used as a medium of instruction], I think it’s a matter of political will and there are always two different sides on every issue. But as far as I know, a child in Germany will be comfortable to learn in German, so do the children in France, Portugal and others.
In the second part of this interview tomorrow, Sister Annette will give her assessment on Tanzania curricular and how the country can plan and develop it.
Let’s talk a bit about our curricula. How do you assess them?
I see Tanzanian children the same as children of any other country with huge ability in music, sports, drama, computer, and other talents apart from specialist subjects.
I reiterate that the curriculum must be as broad to cover other skill-based subjects and debunk the current stereotype that they don’t matter.
Maybe you will tell me that the time will come, but these subjects were there before.
Every primary school had a sports day, but very few do that now.
Students can forget what they learnt in History or Biology but will remember what they learnt in a play and who they were with and how they were applauded something that earns them confidence.
If allowed to recommend how better the country can plan and develop curriculum, what would be your advice?
We need to give alternatives.
For example, in my own country (Ireland), you have the system of two levels, let’s take a subject like a history and take the First World War as a topic.
Those who have low ability, they will learn what happened, what were the causes, what were the results, some of the main people, one or two of the maps, and that’s about it and they will be expected to know that inside out and will be examined on that amount.
The same course will be given with a lot more detail to those who are cleverer, they will be expected to know all the people concerned, many maps, many consequences and a lot of other details including to compare the war with another war and what is going on in the world today.
There is no stigma with this, the students learn happily at their level and do very well.
What is your view on free education launched by the fifth phase government under President John Magufuli?
There is no such thing as free education. When people talk about free education, they are talking about government-sponsored education.
The government sponsors the education through the taxes that the parents pay, the workers are paying high taxes, and you pay very high taxes on everything you buy, even food.
So it’s not free the way people think, its people who fund education through their government. Even though it is people who fund education, they are not getting what they should be getting.
You all the time get tired of the lack of good planning. You have seven thousand students in one school, what is that about?
Can this people-funded education offer a solution to universal quality education?
We have good staffing in both primary and secondary schools but they are not given enough resources nor are they given freedom.
In any country that I know, you don’t discourage parents from helping schools.
If the government provides you with the primary school or secondary school, in a normal situation the parents of that area needs to be proud and privileged to assist their school through their parents association which does whatever can be done to improve that school.
Can you imagine a school with 7, 000 students, even if the parents will contribute Sh1, 000 each, how much money would have been collected per month?
Discouraging the parents that they should pay nothing because the government has announced basic education to be free does not make sense.
There is this one headmaster I know, a very excellent one, who used to have a system of the teachers and the parents whose small contributions would help him to employ maybe half a dozen part-time teachers who were willing to do the extra work to make the school improve in performance.
But since the announcement of ‘free education’, that system died and he is handicapped by the government order asking the school heads to stop demanding contributions from parents.
So from your perspective, is fee-free education a blessing or a curse?
Any education is better than none, but I think the system itself is misunderstood. Its government sponsored through the taxes of the people.
My advice on free fee education is that the system is not to postpone, but it requires a huge investment for it to succeed.
What is your opinion about the single book model?
We have books from Tanzania Institute of Education in our libraries here and nobody uses them. I spent a lot of money on them but they are not user-friendly and have a lot of mistakes. Nowadays, there is a great choice.
How do you assess the government’s efforts towards inclusive education?
I think there are been very good examples here and there of the government sponsoring people with special needs and helping the deaf, the blind and the likes.
The government is doing great on that.
Let’s assume that this interview will be read Education Minister Joyce Ndalichako, what do you want to tell her?
She has done great in sorting out the long-existing problems in the country’s education sector. But she should strive for more investment in both primary and secondary education to ensure quality education. She also needs to encourage parents to contribute to the schools’ development for quality education their children can get from schools.