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In-depth: Is Ethiopia’s education system under a serious threat?

The recent announcement of the Grade 12 national exam results, which revealed that only 3.2% of the students achieved the passing score, is a significant indicator of the declining quality of education (Photo: ENA)

By Molla Mitiku @MollaAyenew

Addis Abeba – With nearly 30 million students at primary and secondary levels and over 130,000 students entering higher education annually, Ethiopia has been recognized over the past decades for its robust gains in terms of access to education. However, this commendable progress is overshadowed by the dwindling quality of education.

A clear indicator of this decline in quality is evident in the recently announced secondary school leaving examination. The results of this grade 12 national exam reveal that nearly 97% of students failed to score the minimum passing 50% points. Out of the total 845,000 students who took the exam, only 27,267 (3.2%) achieved the passing score and will be eligible to join universities.

The performance of grade 12 exams in the previous year was also below expectations. Last year, approximately 900,000 high school students appeared for standardized tests for college admission, and only a meager 3.3% managed to attain a passing grade of 50% or above.

Experts argue that, in light of multilayered factors that are contributing to the decline of the quality of education and undermining gains made with regard to access to education, the whole education system in Ethiopia is on the verge of collapsing, and the Ministry of Education’s current approach of scrutinizing exams is like putting the cart before the horse.

Eskinder Jembere (PhD), an assistant professor at Ambo University’s Institution of Education and Behavioral Change, argues that the ministry’s current approach to examinations is predominantly centered around standardizing assessments rather than valuing the genuine learning outcomes of students, which encompass their skills, values, and attitudes. “Unfortunately, little consideration is given to the learning process itself and the knowledge gained by students,” argued Eskinder.

Eskinder believes that evaluating the efficacy of education demands a comprehensive perspective that goes beyond standardized exams. According to him, this evaluation should go beyond relying solely on standardized exams and take into consideration the diverse range of factors that impact learning outcomes, such as education infrastructure, teaching materials, and qualified teachers.

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Over the past two decades, the country has made significant strides in expanding access to education. From a mere 10 million students a decade ago, the current enrollment has skyrocketed to over 30 million students, spread across more than 47,000 primary and secondary schools.

Moreover, there has been a noteworthy expansion in higher education with the establishment of many public universities, currently reaching close to 50. The annual capacity for higher education intake now exceeds 130,000 students, up from less than 10,000 two decades ago.

In its recent assessment, however, the Ministry of Education has identified that out of the 47,000 primary and secondary schools, only four were able to meet the established standards. Astonishingly, 85.9% of the primary and secondary schools were classified as “significantly below standard.”

Eskinder emphasizes that the current intervention of the ministry regarding university entrance and exit exams does not have a significant and lasting impact on the quality of education. Instead, it is crucial to concentrate on improving the teacher training program at the foundational level. “The government is inadvertently creating a problem; it’s like the cobra effect, where the solution itself becomes a problem. It would be more effective to start from the ground up and focus on enhancing teacher training institutions,” added Eskinder.

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Students’ evaluation should go beyond relying solely on standardized exams and take into consideration the diverse range of factors that impact learning outcomes.”

Eskinder Jembere, (PhD), assistant professor at Ambo University

The competency of educators, including teaching staff, also remains a subject of scrutiny. A recent evaluation conducted by the ministry reveals that only a quarter of elementary and high school teachers successfully passed an exam designed to assess their proficiency.

Siyane Aniley (PhD), a researcher in comparative education at Addis Ababa University, also emphasized the importance of enhancing efforts to provide schools with necessary resources and improving training institutions for teachers, as this has been an ongoing issue since the recruitment of teachers. “The ministry can enhance the quality of education by improving the caliber of teachers and upgrading the teachers’ training institutions.”

Expecting the students to achieve good passing scores and blaming them when they fail to achieve it without taking into consideration the teaching-learning process throughout the year, is really “a problematic approach” in the current education system, Siyane (PhD) noted.

Gutema Totoba, an instructor at Dilla Teachers’ Training College on his part draws attention to the precarious state of teachers, teaching being one of the least paid professions in the country, and its impact on the quality of the teaching-learning process.

During a recent interview broadcasted by the state-owned Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, Professor Berhanu Nega, the Minister of Education, stated that improvement can only be observed once the students currently in grade 9 complete high school and undertake the grade 12 exit examination. His claim is rooted in the belief that the implementation of a new nationwide curriculum will likely enhance the quality of education.

Starting with the current school season, the Ministry is implementing a new curriculum across all public and private high schools in the country. Furthermore, a new curriculum has been implemented for primary schools in Ethiopia since the previous Ethiopian calendar year. However, many students are currently taking classes without having hardcopy textbooks.

Berhanu indicated that the reason for this issue is a lack of financial capacity, as the ministry was required to provide a payment of 27 billion birr for the printing and distribution of the textbooks. He further states that the printing of the textbooks is currently in progress, with 37 containers of printed textbooks already reaching the port of Djibouti.

Education entangled with politics

Although education officials and experts highlight several obstacles within the education sector, such as poor teacher competency and inadequate school supplies, Eskinder emphasizes that the ultimate failure of education to fulfill its intended purpose can be attributed to one detrimental factor: its entanglement with politics. According to him, the education sector has been systematically manipulated as a political tool, hindering the establishment of a knowledge-centered system.

Eskinder also asserts that many teachers, school administrators, and principals are appointed to their positions primarily based on their political affiliation rather than their professional competence. In light of this, Eskinder argues that it is unsurprising that they do not prioritize improving education.

Alebachew Kemisso (PhD), an associate professor at the Center for Comparative Education and Policy Studies at Addis Ababa University, believes that while politics and education are closely linked, there should be a certain level of independence for education to ensure a balanced system. “Recognizing the autonomy of schools is crucial to fostering a healthy education system in the country,” he explained.

Both Eskinder and Alebachew stress that putting an end to political interventions and promoting the independence of academic freedom can significantly contribute to educational success. They emphasize the importance of allowing schools to be autonomous and free without outside parties dictating their actions.

Professor Berhanu Nega, the Minister of Education, asserts that the government firmly believes in keeping politics and the education system separate (Photo: MoE/Facebook)

During a recent interview, Berhanu did not deny that the government and political parties have manipulated the education sector, hindering it from fully achieving its objectives. “The process of ruining the education sector took many years, and it cannot be restored overnight,” he said.

Berhanu asserts that the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is wholeheartedly dedicated to initiatives aimed at enhancing the quality of education. According to him, the government firmly believes in keeping politics and the education system separate. “The autonomy granted to Addis Ababa University is a clear testament to the government’s unwavering commitment.”

Conflict cast its shadows

Experts emphasize that the quality of education can be improved by implementing standardized assessments, enhancing infrastructure, and improving teachers’ competencies. However, a significant challenge remains in carrying out daily teaching and learning practices amidst violence, conflict, and war.

Since 2020, the education sector has faced significant difficulties due to the closure of schools caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar to many other countries worldwide, the Ethiopian government made the decision to shut down schools after the first reported case was identified in Addis Abeba on 16 March, 2020. As a result, over 26 million students across the nation were forced to stay at home for nearly eight months.

Despite enduring the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of students found themselves confronted with the devastating consequences of conflicts erupting in various regions of the country. In April 2023, Save the Children released a report indicating that over 3.5 million children in Ethiopia are unable to attend school, making it one of the world’s largest education crises.

Experts note that the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels are currently facing significant challenges in terms of both the quality and timely implementation of the teaching-learning process. Eskinder emphasized that the challenge observed today extends beyond the quality of education alone. It also poses a serious threat to access to education, with millions of students being deprived of schooling.

A recent publication by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) highlighted that a staggering 9,382 schools across Ethiopia have been partially or entirely damaged, and 4,262 schools have been forced to close due to armed conflicts and natural disasters.

The situation is particularly dire in Tigray, where 85% of schools have suffered significant or partial damage. Multiple reports indicate that the destructive impact of the two-year-long conflict in Tigray, which subsequently extended to the Amhara and Afar regions, is catastrophic. Save the Children reports that the conflict in northern Ethiopia has affected more than 20 million people, resulting in the closure of over 7,000 schools and denying access to education for almost 2.3 million children.

Even after the peace agreement signed in November 2022, the education sector in Tigray has not fully recovered. This can be attributed, in part, to the lack of reconstruction efforts for the school buildings that were damaged or destroyed during the conflict. The condition of educational facilities in Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions is even worse, as many schools lack essential provisions, such as furniture, to continue their operations.

After three years of being out of school and experiencing the traumas of national conflict, the fortunate children in the region who can now attend education are confronted with a demanding task ahead – catching up on their education. In Tigray, out of the 124,000 students eligible to sit for the grade eight regional examinations conducted on October 5th, 2023, only 60,000 took the exam. This means that more than half of the total number of students did not attend school.

Addis Standard recently reported that the educational situation in Tigray at all levels remains extremely poor. Despite an expected enrollment of 2.4 million students, only 660,000 (23%) were registered, while the majority, 77% of the students, remained out of school.

A similar situation is now being observed in the Amhara region, where half of the six million eligible primary and secondary students remain unregistered in the current academic year due to the ongoing conflict between the federal government and the non-state militia called Fano.

Violence and conflict in other parts of Ethiopia also pose a threat to students, negatively impacting the quality of education. In Oromia, unrest in 49 woredas (administrative divisions) has resulted in over 208,000 children being unable to attend school, and more than 1,200 schools have been damaged.

A state of emergency should be declared to effectively address the major crises in the education sector.”

Alebachew Kemisso (PhD), associate professor at Addis Ababa University

Several justifications point to the perilous situation of Ethiopian education. Despite these clear facts, experts argue that there is a denial regarding the deteriorating state of the country’s education system.

Eskinder (PhD) asserts that the system is on the brink of collapse and becoming increasingly fragile. He cites conflicts, drought, internal displacement, and related challenges as factors that have hindered access to education, resulting in a significant number of students being unable to attend school. Eskinder further emphasizes the alarming dropout rate among students, making it difficult to claim that the education system is functioning properly; instead, it is deteriorating.

Siyane (PhD) also argues that while describing the sector as falling apart may be an accurate assessment, it would be more fair to say that the system is on the verge of collapse.

Nevertheless, some experts are making efforts to remain optimistic, albeit partially. According to Gutema, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the education system has completely collapsed. He highlights lack of functionality rather than implying a total collapse and suggests a comprehensive inspection into the sector to identify the problems.

Alebachew said the ministry of education must first admit the huge crisis facing the education sector and declare a state of emergency to effectively address the major crises in the education sector. He firmly believes that the current approach taken by the Ministry including introducing new curriculum is inadequate in tackling these pressing issues. AS

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