Education for what?

Adele Quinn is a primary school teacher in Northern Ireland and has been active within Development Perspectives as a leader and participant since 2010.

In 2010, I was a participant on the Insight programme and had the opportunity to visit Mwika, Tanzania for the first time. Mwika’s a small rural market village set in the middle of rolling green hills, and in every direction there are brown paths leading to valleys holding various active communities. We met Mama Lucy who ran a small coffee business; a women’s group who ran a co-op selling local produce; and the local primary school children who arrived at school at 7am to do their school chores before readying themselves for class. I left Tanzania with a glorious impression of the impact of grassroots projects and have thought of them on many occasions when ‘sustainable community development’ is mentioned at home.
On my 2nd visit to Mwika I was delighted to see the continuation of this active community development, but I found myself looking at some of the local initiatives with a more critical eye, particularly concerning the education of young people. As an educator I believe every child has a right to an education, but this visit made me question the role it plays in Tanzania, who’s included in the process, and what are they being educated for?
In Primary School, it appears to be for the benefit of the local community as the school pledge suggests:
Although this sign is in English, students are educated through the National language Swahili in Primary school and although they have English language lessons, government testing shows that in 2010, only 35.4% of students received passing marks in English at the end of their Primary Education National tests. (Basic Education Statistics in Tanzania: 2006-2010, Tanzania Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, June 2010, page iv) Nevertheless, all students make the transition onto secondary school where the entire curriculum is taught through the medium of English, despite the fact that not very many of the students can speak, understand or read English. The secondary schools motto says it all when it states: ‘To Dare is to Speak English’.

Education should be inclusive and relevant to every child, so why has the government developed the educational policy to educate their children through a foreign language? After speaking to the Tanzanian participants from UVIKUTA, I was informed that Government development policy stipulates that the ability to speak English prepares students to work in the global economy, however this ‘development’ clearly excludes the 65% of students who leave primary education without sound understanding or knowledge of the English language – is this inclusive educational development?
Luckily, we were given the opportunity to look at some of these questions when the school hosted a debate with the proposing argument stating that the curriculum should continue to be taught through the medium of the English language, the opposing argument stating that Swahili should facilitate the education of the secondary subjects. The debate highlighted that the issue is a contentious one, particularly among teachers, who admitted they had to use Swahili to teach and explain difficult concepts. Unfortunately for a large percentage of the students present, they were not able to fully engage in the debate, as it was communicated through English. Whilst addressing the crowd I wished I could speak Swahili so that all the students could engage with the debate.

Why English?

Those proposing the argument felt that with English comes a passport to network with the rest of the world and trade within the global economy. The students were very aware that the Western world has a thirst for Tanzanian natural resources, of which Tanzanite (a rare jewel) and Diamonds are mined and exported to the Western World to be cut and sold for quite a large fortune. The country is also home to countless conservation parks where tourists come and pay hundreds of dollars to catch a glimpse of the big 5 or to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. The English language is paramount to the continued success of this bustling tourism industry. Furthermore, students highlighted that English is required to transition onto higher education which provides more employability opportunities within the government and private sectors, (with multi-national corporations, of which there are many that operate in the country).
Tanzanian English School
Those opposing the motion highlighted that being taught the secondary curriculum through English made the subjects much more difficult to understand and they would be more able to discuss a difficult concept using their own language. We, as Development Perspectives volunteers, were beginning to ask ourselves, and be asked, why we weren’t being utilised better in the country by tutoring some students with their grasp of the language that would assist in their educational achievement. However, the opposition highlighted that if students were taught through Swahili there would be higher academic standards across all subjects, resulting in better understanding and the creation of a more knowledgeable and confident young people.
The language debate became increasingly political with the issue of sacrificing the Tanzanian culture in pursuit of global trade agreements being argued many times. This view point is echoed across the ‘developing’ world, and some extremists view a ‘Western education’ as the penultimate attack on the countries cultural values. Indeed on July 6th 2013 Abubakar Shekau, leader of Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, whose men killed 46 students in an assault on a boarding school sent a warning to the countries teachers: “Teachers who teach western education? We will kill them! We will kill them in front of their students and tell the students to henceforth study the Koran”. (Michelle Faul) ( As a teacher, I found this article very disturbing, but it highlights how education impacts on cultural values. If English is preferred over the vernacular, that vernacular will be lost – indeed languages are lost every day around the world, at the expense of development – just look at Ireland and how much money is being spent on saving the language and culture from extinction.
Some of the opposition felt that the current education system in Tanzania is educating young people for a capitalist system that they feel is unsustainable. I thought of my own education in Ireland where some of the teachers I had thought viewed their role as passing on information to students so that they could regurgitate it under examination, and then graduate on to become a cog in the wheel of a capitalist system.The students debated that they should be educated to become leaders and create employment opportunities that develop the infrastructure in the country in a sustainable manner, so that the country does not need to depend on the Western world’s employment opportunities.

The very fact that the education system is being debated in schools, albeit in a foreign language, is testament to the community participation that exists in Tanzania. Indeed it got me and the other Irish participants thinking about what we in Ireland are being educated for, and querying why it is that we’ve never discussed this is a formal educational setting. This is where Development Perspectives comes in; the Insight programme provides the space and opportunity to recognise development, ask critical questions of it, and I aim to reflect on this more in my own teaching.

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