Thomas Yilma didn’t last a day as a teacher in an Ethiopian government school. After graduating from university he was packed off to a small village in a remote corner of the Ethiopian highlands with scant electricity or phone signal, let alone internet connection, where he was to begin his career. “I felt like I was being abandoned in the middle of nowhere,” he says now. After one restless night he turned around and headed back to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, leaving the country’s state education sector behind him.
Thomas’s story—extreme though it is—sheds some light on the troubles plaguing Ethiopia’s rapidly expanding school system. Though he eventually found a job in an American-owned private school, this too proved only temporary. After six years he did what many of his colleagues—and thousands of teachers across Ethiopia—so often end up doing, and quit the profession entirely. “I never had any desire to become a teacher,” he says. “You could guess what their lives were like. I wanted to be a doctor or an engineer—like everybody else.”
At first sight this is surprising. Education in Ethiopia over the past decade is in some senses a success story. Government statistics are not wholly reliable—the ruling party does a good job of steering clear of most international surveys, making regional comparison difficult—but many of the headline figures are impressive regardless. Few governments in Africa—or elsewhere, for that matter—spend as much of their revenues on education as that of Ethiopia. In a continent which today directs a higher proportion of government expenditure towards the sector than any other—18.4%—Ethiopia has consistently been in the top rank for the past decade. Between 2000 and 2013 it almost doubled the share of its budget allocated to education, from 15% to 27%.
Measured in terms of access to primary education (which is now free), the results are striking. Ethiopia now has one of the highest enrollment rates in Africa, up from the nadir in the early 1990s when it had one of the world’s lowest. The number of primary schools almost tripled from 1996 to 2015, while student enrollment grew from less than 3 million to over 18 million within the same period—almost universal. Youth literacy meanwhile jumped from 34% in 2000 to 52% in 2011.
According to the UN’s Education For All Development Index, which provides a snapshot of the overall progress of national education systems, Ethiopia came second only to Mozambique in terms of size of the improvement over the previous decade, and made fastest progress in terms of expanding universal primary enrolment. Between 2001 and 2008, the number of out-of-school children fell by more than 60%. Compare this to Nigeria, which at the same moment experienced a lost decade: the percentage of children out of school showed no improvement whatsoever by the end of it.
But all this masks a deep-seated malaise. According to the government’s own figures, for every 1,000 children who begin school, around one-half will pass uninterrupted to Grade 5 and only one-fifth to completion of Grade 8. Soaring enrolment at secondary level in Addis Ababa—statistical quirks mean the figure here is actually over 100%—contrasts with less than a tenth in the sparsely populated, largely pastoralist region of Afar, which stretches eastwards towards Eritrea and Djibouti.
Those who do manage to stick it out struggle, consistently under-performing what the curriculum expects of them. According to Belay Hagos, director of educational research at Addis Ababa University, students at various grades are learning on average only 40% of the material they are supposed to master. National Learning Assessments, conducted every four years, reveal a stubborn lack of progress. The average score for a Grade 4 student, for instance, dipped from 41% to 40% between 2010 and 2014, and remains stuck below 50% in all regions except Addis Ababa. Comparing 15-year-old children who correctly answered comparable maths questions in 2009 and 2016, Young Lives, a British charity, also found no overall improvement. “I think the education system is in crisis,” says Alula Pankhurst, the charity’s country director.
Why? Part of the answer lies in Thomas’s story. Ethiopia’s brightest and best don’t want to be teachers, and those that do rarely last long. The country’s teachers were once high status: in the northern region of Tigray, the word itself is a title, used to indicate social respect. But this respect has “declined over time,” says Hagos. The profession has been progressively been de-professionalized, ever since the days of the Marxist regime known as the Derg, during which teachers were either co-opted or purged.
Today, teachers are mostly selected from poor-performing students: those who graduate Grade 10 in the top 30% or so go on to Grade 11; those in the tier below join the police; the rest who pass can go to teacher training college. “This is not a good strategy,” says Hagos. “They can’t be good teachers because they weren’t good students in the first place.” His latest research has uncovered what he calls a “professional identity crisis.” As much as 70% of those surveyed reported feeling bad about the profession, while 98% said the pay was too low. “They are teachers but they don’t want to be called teachers,” he says. “They are ashamed of it.”
Other problems specific to Ethiopia—beyond the obvious lack of financial resources—are compounding its teaching troubles. An especially tricky one is the country’s federal constitution, which devolves a great deal of education policy to the nine regional governments, in particular language of instruction.
Regions tend to choose to educate their children at primary level in the local language, but after that instruction suddenly switches to English—a treacherous passage that few sail through easily. “It’s very worrying,” says Pankhurst. “The transition to English in some regions can be a very, very steep curve.” Even at university level standards can be shockingly poor.
The government knows it has itself in a bind: expanding educational access at such a fast pace was always bound to lead to a dilution in standards. “Ethiopia judiciously picked one route, which was students in rooms and bums on seats,” says Ravi Shankar of Accelerated, a company based in Addis Ababa that is working to improve teaching standards in Ethiopia and elsewhere on the continent. Now the government is making efforts to correct this: teachers wages, for instance, were increased sharply last year, and it has embarked on a large-scale program of skills training for teachers.
But whether it can ever follow in the footsteps of a country like Vietnam—whose single-minded focus on education the government has long sought to emulate—is uncertain. And what if it fails? “A crisis of expectation is a recipe for unrest,” says Pankhurst, noting that the anti-government protests which have swept across much of the country since 2014 were led by students with few prospects and even less hope.