Education in Ethiopia had been dominated by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for many centuries until secular education was adopted in the early 1900s. Prior to 1974, Ethiopia had an estimated illiteracy rate well above 90% and compared poorly with the rest of Africa in the provision of schools and universities. After the Ethiopian Revolution, emphasis was placed on increasing literacy in rural areas. Practical subjects were stressed, as was the teaching of socialism. By 2015, the literacy rate had increased to 49.1%, still poor compared to most of the rest of Africa.
Recently, there has been massive expansion throughout the educational system. Access to primary schools is limited to urban locations, where they are mostly private-sector or faith-based organizations. Primary school education consists of two cycles: grades 1 to 4 and grades 5 to 8. Secondary schools also have two cycles: grades 9 to 10 and grades 11 to 12. Primary schools have over 90% of 7-year-olds enrolled although only about half complete both cycles. This situation varies from one region to the other, being lower in agro-pastoral locations (such as Somali and Afar regions) and the growing regions such as Gambella and Benshangul Gumz.
A much smaller proportion of children attend secondary school and even fewer attend its second cycle. School attendance is lowest in rural areas due to lack of provision and the presence of alternative occupations. In later grades the secondary curriculum covers more subjects at a higher level than curricula in most other countries. Low pay and undervaluation of teachers contributes to poor quality teaching, exacerbated by large class sizes and poor resources—resulting in poor performance in national assessments. There is also evidence of corruption including forgery of certificates.
Many primary schools have introduced mother-tongue teaching but face difficulties where small minority languages are concerned. English-medium instruction remains a problem throughout the later years of education. Girls’ access to education has been improved but early marriage decreases their attendance. Girls’ educational attainment is adversely affected by gender stereotypes, violence, lack of sanitary facilities and the consequences of sexual activity.
Jimma University is addressing some problems women experience in higher education. Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutes have introduced competence-based assessments although many lack adequate resources. Teacher training has been up-graded. All higher education has been expanding in enrollment but without comparable expansion in staffing and resources. There have been difficulties in introducing business process re-engineering (BPR) with poorly paid university staff supplementing their incomes where possible. Universities need to match training to market demands. All colleges and universities suffer from the same disadvantages as schools. Library facilities are poor, classes are large and there is lack of equipment.
Although the existence of inscriptions prove that literacy preceded the adoption of Christianity as the recognized religion in Ethiopia, by the time of the earliest surviving records formal education was controlled by the church. Educational opportunities were seen as the preserve of Ethiopia’s ruling Amhara class, but even for Amhara for only a few. Samuel Gobat estimated that “where Amharic is spoken, about one-fifth of the male population can read a little, and in Tigre about one twelfth.”
According to Richard Pankhurst, the traditional education provided by the church
began with the learning of the alphabet, or more properly, syllabary, made up of 26 base characters, each with seven forms, indicating the various vowels. The student’s second stage comprised the memorization of the first chapter of the first Epistle General of St. John in Geez. The study of writing would probably also begin at this time, and particularly in more modern times some arithmetic might be added. In the third stage the Acts of the Apostles were studied, while certain prayers were also learnt, and writing and arithmetic continued. The children, who also studied signing would now be able to serve as choristers. The fourth stage began with the study of the Psalms of David and was considered an important landmark in a child’s education, being celebrated by the parents by a feast in which the teacher, father confessor, relatives and neighbours were invited. A boy who had reached this stage would moreover usually be able to write, and might act as a letter writer. … Other work in this stage included the study of Praises to God, and the Virgin Mary, the Song of Solomon and the Songs of the Prophets. Many people have learned the song of Solomon.
The higher education the Ethiopian Church provided involved Church music (divided into digua, zemare and mawaset, and qidasse), poetry, mathematics, history, philosophy and manuscript writing. Another field of study was aquaquam or the religious dance performed as part of church services.
Until the early 1900s, formal education was confined to a system of religious instruction organized and presented under the aegis of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Church schools prepared individuals for the clergy and for other religious duties and positions. In the process, these schools also provided religious education to the children of the nobility and to the sons of limited numbers of tenant farmers and servants associated with elite families. Such schools mainly served the Amhara and Tigray inhabitants of the Ethiopian highlands. Misguided policies caused very few children to receive an education. As a result, Ethiopia did not meet the Educational standards of other African countries in the early 1900s.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Menelik II had also permitted the establishment of European missionary schools. At the same time, Islamic schools provided some education for a small part of the Muslim population. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the education system’s failure to meet the needs of people involved in statecraft, diplomacy, commerce, and industry led to the introduction of government-sponsored secular education. The first public school to provide a western-style education was the Ecole Imperiale Menelik II, which was opened in October 1908 under the guidance of Hanna Salib and a number of Copt teachers. By 1924, Pankhurst notes that “no fewer than 3,000 students had passed through the school”, and states that in 1935 the school had 150 pupils. That same year, Emperor Menelik II established a primary school in Harar.
In 1925 the government adopted a plan to expand secular education, but ten years later there were only 8,000 students enrolled in twenty public schools. A few students also studied abroad on government scholarships; Pankhurst provides minimum numbers for several countries: at least 20 studied in Lebanon, 19 in Egypt, 12 in Sudan, 63 in France, 25 in England, 8 in the United States, 10 in Switzerland, 10 in Italy, and smaller numbers in Germany, Belgium and Spain.
After their conquest of Ethiopia, the Italians acted quickly to reorganize the educational system in Ethiopia. An ordinance issued 24 July 1936 reiterated the principle that the newly conquered country, as in the older colonies, would have two different types of educational institutions, namely “Italian-type schools” and schools for “colonial subjects.”The existing Tafari Makonnen School was converted into two “Italian type” schools, the Liceo-Ginnasio Vittorio Emanuele III and the Istituto Tecnico Benito Mussolini, both reserved for European children, while the prewar Empress Menen School for girls was converted into the Regina Elena military hospital. Many other existing schools were converted to Italian-only schools, while new schools created for the native population, in the words of Patrick Roberts, were “not schools in reality, but have been established for propaganda purposes.” Although the Italian government boasted in 1939 that there were thirteen primary schools in the province of Shewa staffed by over sixty teachers and having an enrollment of 1481, actual attendance fluctuated greatly, as the official statement admitted that many students were said to be absent from class in order to follow Italian lorries, or to spend their time “idly in their tukuls.”
Following the Italian defeat, the country started to build up the sector, but the system faced shortages of teachers, textbooks, and facilities. The government recruited foreign teachers for primary and secondary schools to offset the teacher shortage. By 1952 a total of 60,000 students were enrolled in 400 primary schools, eleven secondary schools, and three institutions offering college-level courses. In the 1960s, 310 mission and privately operated schools with an enrollment of 52,000 supplemented the country’s public school system. While reforms have been made in the aims of education, the actual structure of the Ethiopian school system has remained unchanged from that established in the 1950s.
There were two institutions of higher education: Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa, formed by imperial charter in 1961, and the private University of Asmara, founded by a Roman Catholic religious order based in Italy. The government expanded the public school system and in 1971 there were 1,300 primary and secondary schools and 13,000 teachers. But the system suffered from a shortage of qualified personnel, a lack of funds, and overcrowded facilities. Often financed with foreign aid, school construction usually proceeded faster than the training and certification of teachers. In addition, most schools were in the major towns. Crowded and understaffed, those schools in small towns and rural areas provided a poor education. The inadequacies of public education before the mid-1970s resulted partly from the school financing system. To finance primary education, the government levied a special tax on agricultural land. Local boards of education supervised the disbursement of tax receipts. The system’s inequities fostered the expansion of primary education in wealthier regions rather than in poorer ones. Moreover, urban inhabitants, who did not have to pay the tax but who were predominantly represented in the schools, sent their children at the expense of the taxpaying rural landowners and poor peasants. The government attempted to rectify this imbalance in 1970 by imposing an education tax on urban landowners and a 2 percent tax on the personal income of urban residents. But the Ministry of Finance treated the funds collected as part of the general revenue and never spent the money for its intended purpose. Expenditure on education was only 1.4–3 percent of the gross national product (GNP) between 1968 and 1974, compared with 2.5–6 percent for other African countries during the same period. Under the pressure of growing public dissatisfaction and mounting student activism in the university and secondary schools, the imperial government initiated a comprehensive study of the education system. Completed in July 1972, the Education Sector Review (ESR) recommended attaining universal primary education as quickly and inexpensively as possible, ruralizing the curricula through the inclusion of informal training, equalizing educational opportunities, and relating the entire system to the national development process.
The ESR criticized the education system’s focus on preparing students for the next level of academic study and on the completion of rigid qualifying examinations. Also criticized was the government’s lack of concern for the young people who dropped out before learning marketable skills, a situation that contributed to unemployment. The report stated that, by contrast, “The recommended system would provide a self-contained program at each level that would be terminal for most students.” The report was not published until February 1974, which gave time for rumours to generate opposition among students, parents, and the teachers’ union to the ESR recommendations. Most resented what they considered the removal of education from its elite position. Many teachers also feared salary reductions. Strikes and widespread disturbances ensued, and the education crisis became a contributing factor in the imperial regime’s fall later that year.
With the beginning of the Ethiopian Revolutionin 1974, the name of the university was changed to Addis Ababa University (AAU). By 1974, despite efforts by the government to improve the situation, less than 10 percent of the total population was literate. The national literacy campaign began in early 1975 when the government mobilized more than 60,000 students and teachers, sending them all over the country for two-year terms of service. Most critics however saw this as the government’s way to silence rising opposition while at the same time creating a network of government spies in the rural areas. Generally the campaign to increase literacy remained illusive even though government reports showed improvements.
Under the Derg regime, Marxist–Leninist philosophy was the guiding theme for all government systems. One of the first policy changes was the right of every citizen to free primary education. The educational system was geared to attainment of communist ideology. Eastern European governments provided policy advisors to develop a curriculum based on their systems. The general idea was education for the masses and could be summarized in the slogans “Education for production, for research and for political consciousness”.
The Derg’s (1976) Proclamation No. 103 had public ownership of schools consistent with the socialist system. This still left a few private schools for children of politicians and wealthy families resulting in a higher quality of education for these children than for all others. Primary schooling expanded throughout the country with national enrolment reaching 34.1%. There were still regional disparities with more resources going to the south than to the north. Educational quality decreased with expansion largely due to resource scarcity. The Derg tried to resolve the problem of teacher shortage by recruiting 5,500 untrained teachers from those who had completed grade 12. These teachers had to attend government designed summer schools for three years to obtain certification.
Throughout the Derg regime, civil war, severe drought and famine had a negative effect on educational improvements that had been achieved. By 1991, when the Derg was overthrown by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), infrastructure had been destroyed, there was little access to education and extreme poverty was widespread. Since this time, the EPRDF has gradually improved the educational sector leading up to the current system.
There is some pre-primary education for children aged 4 to 6 years but provision is patchy. Primary school education has two cycles from age 7 to 10 years (grades 1 to 4) and from age 11 to 14 years (grades 5 to 8). Regional exams are taken at the end of grade 8 (Primary school certificate exam). Secondary education has two cycles from age 15 to 16 years (grades 9 and 10) and from age 17 to 18 years (grades 11 to 12) leading up to the national exams. The Ethiopian General Secondary Education Certificate Examination (EGSECE) is taken at the end of grade 10 and requires a pass in at least 5 subjects to pass to the next level. The Ethiopian Higher Education Entrance Examination (EHEEE) is taken at the end of grade 12. Students passing the EHEEE are eligible for university if their grades are sufficiently high.
Alternative basic education (ABE) provides flexible, community based first cycle primary schooling for out of school children.
Students leaving at the end of grade 10 can go to technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions or colleges of teacher training (CTT). TVETs provide an alternative route to university. Universities offer 3-, 4-, and 5-year programs for bachelor’s degrees, doctor of medicine and doctor of veterinary medicine. Students who have a bachelor’s degree may take a specialized post-graduate program for a master’s degree or Ph.D.
Adult and non-formal education provides primary education to adults over age 14 years and is run by both government and non-government organizations.
Primary and secondary schools
The Ministry of Education (MoE) provides some indication of achievements in the five years from 2008/9 to 2012/13 although statistics do depend upon the accuracy of data collected. Primary school enrollment has increased substantially but only about half of those enrolled manage to complete both cycles. There are a large number of over-age children enrolling for grade 1 although this has been declining. This is shown by the difference between gross intake rate (GIR) and net intake rate (NIR). GIR is the percentage of children enrolled for grade 1, regardless of age, out of the population of the appropriate age of 7 years. NIR is the percentage of children of appropriate age out of the population of that age.
In 2008/09, GIR was 162.5% (boys = 169.4%; girls = 144.1%) and NIR was 82.2% (boys = 84.3; girls = 80.1%).
In 2012/13, GIR was 144.1% (boys = 150.2%; girls = 137.8%) and NIR was 95.5% (boys = 97.9%; girls = 93.0%).
Problems are indicated by repetition rates, drop out rates and low completion rates. Repetition rates remained much the same but drop out rates increased.
In 2007/08, repetition rates for grades 1 to 8 were 6.7% (boys = 7.0%; girls = 6.3%) and in 2012/13, they were 7.9% (boys = 8.1%; girls = 7.7%). In 2012/13, repetition rates were highest for grades 1, 5 and 8.
In 2007/08, drop out rates from grades 1 to 8 were 14.6% (boys = 15.9%; girls = 13.2%) and in 2012/13, they were 16.1% (boys = 16.2%; girls = 16.0%).
In 2007/08, the survival rate to grade 5 was 49.2% (boys = 45.8%; girls = 53.3%) and in 2012/13, it was 50.7% (boys = 49.6%; girls = 39.1%).
Completion rates for grade 5 varied around 70% and 80% but completion rates for grade 8 have improved from 43.6% to 52.8% with near parity between boys and girls. There were regional differences in grade 8 completion rates.
In 2012/13, lowest completion rates were in Afar (16.4%) and Somali (15.9%) followed by Oromiya (43.5%). About 80% of children sitting the grade 8 exam passed to grade 9.
Most children are not going to secondary school and differences between gross enrolment ratio (GER) and net enrolment ratio (NER) indicate that many of these children are over-age. GER is the percentage of children enrolled out of the population of appropriate age. NER is the percentage of children of appropriate age out of the population of that age.
In 2008/09, GER was 38.1% (boys =43.7%; girls = 32.4%) and NER was 13.5% (boys = 15.0%; girls = 11.9%).
In 2012/13, GER was 38.4% (boys = 39.9%; girls = 36.9%) and NER was 19.4% (boys = 18.8%; girls = 20.1%).
From all children registered for the 10th grade exam, the percentage scoring the pass mark of 2 or more increased from 42.6% in 2008/09 to 70.1% in 2012/13 with girls increasing from 32.2% to 61.9%.
A very small proportion of children attend the second cycle of secondary school. Between 2008/09 and 2012/13, GER increased from 6.0% to 9.5% with girls increasing from 3.5% to 8.5%. From all children registered for the grade 12 exam in 2012/13, 91.7% attained the pass mark of 201 or more but only 1.7% attained 501 or more.
Access and demand
There have been improvements in access to primary schools while alternative basic education and innovations such as mobile schools are helping to reach disadvantaged groups and remote rural areas. Between 2008/09 and 2012/13,the number of primary schools increased from 25,212 to 30,534. More primary schools need to be built to reach the government target, especially in Somali Region, the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR), Oromia, Gambela Region and Benishangul-Gumuz. Between 2008/09 and 2012/13, the number of secondary schools increased from 1,197 to 1,912 but Harari Region, Afar Region, and Dire Dawa have very few. The small number of secondary schools means that many children who do complete primary school have no access to secondary schools.
Not all parents can afford to send their children to school. Parents may need to pay for clothes, books, transport and school fees. In 1994, school fees for grades 1 to 10 were officially abolished but hidden costs remained. Other costs include loss of children’s wages or unpaid labour for agriculture, tending livestock or housework. Whether children work depends on relative household wealth. Labour-intensive assets such as farms can hire labour if they generate sufficient profit but poorer households may need their children to help with these assets. This can relate to family size, with larger families sending their younger children to school because older children can help their parents. Attendance is reduced when children have to travel long distances to school since this increases personal risk and transport costs. There are also cultural attitudes against educating girls since education will only benefit her husband’s household.
The first cycle of primary education concentrates on functional literacy while the second cycle is preparation for secondary education. In principle, the curriculum aims to link theory with practice in real life and to use a problem-solving approach. Primary education includes: Languages (mother tongue, Amharic), English, Mathematics, Environmental science, Natural science (Physics, Chemistry and Biology in grades 7 and 8), Social science (grades 5 to 8) and Aesthetic education. Secondary school (grades 9 to 10) continues subjects taken in primary school: English and a national language, Mathematics, Natural Sciences (Physics, Chemistry and Biology), Social sciences (Civic education, Geography and History) and Physical education.
The secondary school second cycle (grades 11 and 12) continues the Natural Science and Social science streams. Common subjects in the two streams are English, Mathematics, Civic education, Information technology, a national language and Physical education. The students in the social science stream take Economics, General Business education, History and Geography while those in natural science take Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Technical drawing in addition to the common subjects.
Universities used to have a freshman year to prepare students for a degree but now schools are expected to prepare students. This has had a knock-on effect of moving the freshman programs down to grades 11 and 12 and programs for grades 11 to 12 down to grades 9 and 10. The grade 9 to 10 curriculum is now equivalent to grades 11 and 12 in many other countries and it covers more subjects than most other countries require for university.
The World Bank considers that the curriculum should change from its focus on a few high-level achievers to education for all. Curriculum content differentiation should start in grades 9 and 10 and undergo further differentiation in grades 11 and 12 to provide alternatives to university. There should be continued expansion and improvement of quality in both primary and secondary education to prepare students for different career options in the growing economy. This should take priority over expanding university education. Primary and secondary education should be laying the foundation for lifelong learning by promoting meta-cognitive skills such as reading meaningfully, learning how to learn, group learning, real understanding, cognitive restructuring and information retrieval.
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