Although the history of modern education in Ethiopia can be traced back to the 1940s, the concept of formal and organized education is not new to the country on account of widespread church education offered to religious scholars and leaders which spans over many centuries in Ethiopia. Mainly dominated by the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Islamic Madrasas, where privileged Ethiopians used to go to a schooling program, structured in a manner that is comparative to the modern education system, encompassing primary to tertiary education levels. The main departure point between the modern and the traditional church and mosque-based education systems is that while the former promotes critical thinking as well as the production of new knowledge, the latter encourages learning by heart and reciting of scriptures.
With the introduction of modern education to the country, which is heavily influenced by the western culture, the country’s education system started to change forever, albeit criticisms of unfiltered adaption of the colonial education system as is in other African countries, although the country did not have any colonial history worth mentioning. The arguments and hypothetical benefits of synchronization the traditional and modern systems of education notwithstanding, some experts are of the view that a unique and more effective system could have been molded if the nation took into account its endogenous stock of knowledge.
Since the introduction of a modern education system in the 1940s, Ethiopia saw three different education policies that reflected the change in the ideological inclination of the subsequent governments. The imperial regime crafted a policy with the help of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
After toppling the imperial regime, the Derg took power eventually sweeping off the previously established policy framework, and designed its own education policy with the orientation of scientific socialism. Hence, it introduced Marxism in schools to help deepen the underlining belief.
This system was capable of increasing enrollment rates, according to experts, but at lesser quality in contrast to the increase in access to education.
Then came the current administration of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which fought to overthrow the military government of the Derg, with its new federal system of government. The EPRDF introduced a new education policy in 1994, three years since taking over from Derg.
EPRDF’s Education and Training Policy makes an assessment of the education policy at the time by stating, “To date, it is known that our country’s education is entangled with complex problems of relevance, quality, accessibility, and equity. The objectives of education do not take cognizance of the society’s needs and do not adequately indicate future direction.”
The 1994 Education and Training Policy also describes the aim of education is, “To strengthen the individual’s and society’s problem-solving capacity, ability and culture starting from basic education and at all levels.”
It also asserts that, “The education and training policy envisages bringing-up citizens endowed with humane outlook, countrywide responsibility, and democratic values having developed the necessary productive, creative and appreciative capacity in order to participate fruitfully in development and the utilization of resources and the environment at large.”
But, many observe that Ethiopia’s education policy does not lack in appealing documents as well as arguments; rather, the problems is living up to the promises these documents make.
Bearing this observation and the relevance of the country’s education system in mind, as well as the changing geopolitical, technological and global trends, policymakers are at it again. The government policy drafters are once again working on a new education development roadmap to be implemented between the years 2018 and 2030.
The new roadmap makes assessments of the education sector in terms of primary education, secondary education, teacher training, higher education as well as education financing and governance.
According to the diagnosis that is made by the new roadmap document, public investment in the education sector has increased by 70 percent in real terms between 2003/04 and 2011/12 with the sector accounting for 20 percent of government spending.
“Yet, the combined share of preparatory and secondary level education subsectors was only 10 percent, as opposed to the higher education share which was 42 percent and pre-primary and primary level education share that is at 32 percent,” the document states.
The roadmap, which has been worked on for the past two years, also appreciates the expansion of access to education with increased enrollment rates. But, the education sector has not been all in all a success story, especially when it comes to the quality of education.
Siyane Aniley, an education expert and a PhD candidate at Addis Ababa University’s Center for Comparative Education and Policy Studies, observes that the previous education system was focused on examinations and grades.
“Education has been about reciting and exam preparation; this does not allow students to have time to reflect on what they have learnt,” she assesses. “This roadmap brings various positive changes that can help students gain life skills and become problem solvers.”
The new roadmap, according to another prominent education expert, proposes a divergent direction from the previous one that was crafted so as to bring about the agrarian revolution and all-out economic development driven by the agriculture sector.
“The new recommendations are meant to make the students fit for the 21st century, in way that is compatible with the technological advancements taking place and serving the needs of the new era,” the expert points out. “The policy that served for the past 20 years is too old. Such policies need to be looked into and improved in five and six years. It is this that the new roadmap addresses.”
But, the education system in the country is more politicized for him as it has become a tool for politicians.
“Education has become a tool for political gains. For instance, they were calling for the participation of the public in the making of the education policy, something that is not done while designing other policies like that of health and construction. The task had been hijacked from the experts and is helping the interests of the politicians. This is the problem of the education system,” he argues.
And, this politicization, according to Andrew DeCort (PhD), an ethics scholar from the University of Chicago and author of the book Bonhoeffer’s New Beginning: Ethics After Devastation who also has teaching experiences in the Ethiopian academic sector, says that this politicization has a far-reaching impact on the country’s education system.
“If we believe that genuine education system nurtures students to be able to think critically based on the free exchange of ideas rooted in argument and evidence, then the politicization of the education system paralyzes the nervous system of education. Instead of students becoming independent thinkers committed to the truth, they learn to censor themselves, parrot ideas, and remain silent in the face of falsehood and injustice. As you can see, I do not believe that education is merely a technical process by which we train young people to follow formulas and produce predictable results. Education, especially in the humanities, is an adventure that requires the courage, maturity, and community to be able to ask questions, explore implications, and follow arguments wherever they may lead. If teachers and students know from the start that they will be penalized for doing this, then the educational enterprise is been crippled from the start,” he warns. “The impact can be very severe.”
Though, for Siyane, it is difficult to liberate the education system from political influence because of its nature.
“Education is politicized by itself and when the political system cripples, it cripples along, and when the politics change, the education changes with it. We cannot have education exclusive of politics. So far, the country’s politics failed in various aspects and the education failed along with it,” she argues.
This resulted in the dwindling quality of education producing grade five students that cannot read and write; graduates who are not employable and not problem solvers; and a system that lacks inclusiveness and equity.
“When we take care of the politics, the education improves,” she stands, “but, politics should not be part of the day to day activities of the educators whose task is educating. Teacher evaluations should not focus on activities other than the actual task of teaching.”
For the expert mentioned above who talked to The Reporter anonymously, the politicization of the Ethiopian education system is far-reaching than the day-to-day activities of the teaching and learning process. He says that it is politics and governance that are in the public domain, not education or any other policy. Education policymaking is technical, he argues.
“Because of the politicization, education ceased to be technical and became political,” he laments.
While there are such concerns in the education sector, the new roadmap recommends various changes to the education sector including the structural readjustment of primary education. Accordingly, the former format of 8-2-2 would be phased out and a new 6-2-4 will be adapted as the new structural format of the education system. The 8-2-2 format had eight years of primary education with an exit exam in grade eight with two years of high school and a national school-leaving exam in grade 10. The students go to two years of preparatory education to finally get tested in order to join higher education arena.
In the new 6-2-4 system, students go through six years of primary education, two years of junior secondary school and four years of high school.
But, contentious medium of instruction (language) issues have emerged into the political arena due to the roadmap’s recommendation to provide Amharic, English and one local language starting from grade one. This being a soft recommendation to be followed by regional governments, the issue became an issue of political debate in the country.
The roadmap suggested that the introduction of bilingual education with mother tongue language and one other preferred language help enhance the understanding and the unity of diverse Ethiopia.
Politicians took this as an imposition of a language on students who should rather learn and enhance their local language.
This question, though coming at a time when there is no language policy despite the country boasts more than 80 languages proudly spoken by the different nations and nationalities of the country.
Siyane believes that a country as diverse as Ethiopia definitely needs a language policy.
“A language policy is a must for a country as diverse as Ethiopia. But, how should we treat the education until this happens?” she questions. “We have to figure out a common solution for this.”
According to her, Ethiopia is commended for its use of mother tongue at schools, which other African countries are taking experience from; and education at the primary level should be in the mother tongue as this is the time for students to start interacting with their local environment and understand themselves.
“The roadmap is suggesting three languages for grade ones; this is difficult for them to comprehend,” she argues. “We rather have to capitalize on the practice of using mother tongue education in schools.”
She says that there are other factors that the education system needs to concern itself with more than languages. Bringing this into the much-polarized politics of the country is detrimental.
For DeCort, teaching to make students trilingual is not a difficult task and it won’t be difficult for them to comprehend. Rather, the challenge lies in the lack of capable teachers that can teach the students the said languages, effectively.
“Language is an extremely complex and controversial issue in Ethiopia and many other societies. Of course, we know that children are very capable of learning multiple languages, so trying to train them to be trilingual is not impossible,” DeCort argues. “But language learners also require teachers who are competent to instruct them. “Several friends with advanced education and senior positions of leadership in Ethiopia have darkly joked that many English teachers don’t know English, including at AAU.”
He further argues that the intention is wonderful and important; but he questions its pedagogical practicality, i.e. the availability of enough language instructors from which students can learn from.
“How do we empower students – and also teachers – to succeed in acquiring language, so they can communicate and learn? This is an important question,” he concludes.
With a more or less similar analysis of the teachers’ capability, the roadmap gives due attention to teacher education and training.
Siyane also observes that availability of capable teachers is a challenge to the implementation of the roadmap. The teaching profession is a third or fourth tier choice for employees after exploring all other available alternatives. Teacher education is also more theoretical rather than practical. Best performers should join the market with side by side empowerment of those in the profession.
Secondly, school environments that do not encourage students to choose to come to school rather than sit home will be a challenge. The manifestations of this could be availability of washrooms, water, sanitary pads for girls, as well as suitability for the disabled and women.
The third and last challenge is inclusiveness. She questions whether the education curriculum is conceptually inclusive.
“Is the education system inclusive both conceptually and physically? Which university has a sitting female president? Which one promotes the disabled?” she stresses.
She says that the policy should be carefully crafted in a way it addresses these challenges.
For the anonymous expert, lack of accountability is the major challenge of the country’s education system which does not reinforce positive behaviors and punish negative behaviors.
“Everyone has to be held accountable for what he/she does. Those performing well should be recognized while taking proper measures on those who do not perform. The system does not have a culture of accountability and everyone acts instinctively,” he asserts.
Rather than creating a system of accountability, all look for very good excuses for why they did not perform well, he says, and this add up to a nominal level of accountability in the sector.
“Apart from the institutions, the system as well as the legal framework needs to be more enabling. The existing system are not supportive; they are more obliterating,” he maintains.
If the education roadmap addresses these challenges, it will be a turning point for the country’s education system, Siyane foresees.