Educational Challenges in Rwanda: a promising path

Written by Florian Dams

Rwanda is a presidential republic that was, in its current state, only formed in 2003 along with its constitution. It emerged from being colonized by Germany and Belgium consecutively before falling into a civil war followed by a genocide founded on ethnic lines promoted by colonizing countries’ ethnic divisionism (Rwanda – History, n.d.). Through this history of exploitation, oppression and ethnic tensions, education, specifically access and quality of it has been neglected. How does this historical neglect play into Rwanda’s current obstacles to education? Which groups are specifically affected by bad access to education, and do these lines perhaps run along the same ethnic lines that have previously been associated with the genocide in 1994? Has politics taken measures to improve access to education and have these been effective? These are just a few questions that are commonly asked when investigating obstacles to education.

Rwanda has a low Human Development Index, ranking 165th out of 191 countries and a GDP per capita (Rwanda HDI, n.d.). This has a significant influence on taxable income which stands proportionate to the public funds available for spending on education. In 2021, Rwanda spend 15,2% of its national budget on education, making it the sector with the second highest spending. Of this budget, which has significantly increased over the last few years, 44% go to primary education, 32% to secondary and post-secondary education, and 22% to tertiary education (UNICEF, 2020). This high share of spending on education accurately reflects the role ascribed to education by the Rwandan government which sees human capital as its biggest resource as they are not gifted by natural resources.

UNICEF, 2020

Despite these factors, there are still significant obstacles in education, rooted in causes that require even bigger investments to be effectively challenged. The most significant of which are the following:

The gap between primary and secondary school enrollment 

The Rwandan education is structured as a 6-3-3 system, six years of primary school, three years of lower secondary school, and three years of upper secondary school. While 98% of children aged seven and above were at least enrolled in primary education, there is a high dropout rate of 7%. The transition rate to the secondary level also is rather low at 46% in 2021 (Dufitumukiza, Wanjala, & Khatete, 2021). Although the government follows a 9-year basic mandatory education plan, far from all school-aged children complete these nine years which is enabled through non-enforcement of applicable law. Previously the government focused its resources on increasing primary school enrollment rates which turned out to be successful however neglected secondary school enrolment rates. This focus was shifted within the “Vision 2020 Rwanda” which put greater emphasis on increasing secondary enrolment rates, of which the effects are still to be seen (Rwanda Ministry of Education, 2021).

Low quality of teaching

Teaching quality is vital to students’ learning outcomes and thus for their future life as a citizen contributing to a prosperous society. A 2014 study has shown that replacing a teacher from the lowest 5% of teaching quality with a teacher in the median increases lifetime income by 250.000 USD per classroom, which is significant considering the Rwandan average income (Bower, 2019). In Rwanda, the quality of education has been identified as a major shortcoming in the achievement of the goals set (UNICEF, n.d.). In 2008, English became the official teaching language in Rwanda from the third grade of primary school, replacing French as the main mode of instruction (Eysette, 2022). Still, in 2008 only 4% of the population spoke English, which significantly increased to 38% in 2018 due to effective policy (English Proficiency Index, n.d.). However, there is still a significant number of teachers, with little to no English proficiency which leaves students ill-prepared for a possible secondary or tertiary education where English proficiency is considered a must. Additionally, inadequate teacher training and antiquated teaching methods have been identified as a challenge in Rwanda’s education. While teachers’ salary has increased in the last years, spending on professional teacher training has decreased proportionally (UNICEF, 2020).

Teacher to student ratio

Next to the previously mentioned challenges, teachers are also dramatically overworked and overstrained with classroom sizes. The average classroom size in Rwandan primary schools is 62 students per teacher. While this ratio improves in lower and upper secondary schools, the primary school lays the basis for future learning and are thus is in desperate need of more well-educated teachers. The government has taken action to reduce classroom sizes by measures such as having primary school teachers work two six-hour shifts per day to decrease classroom size, which surprisingly has shown a positive effect on both teacher and students side, reducing stress for the former and improving education for the latter (ATHANASE, 2015). Still, there certainly are more sustainable solutions with a greater effect on the educational quality that could be achieved by the employment of more teachers.

5 points of action for resilient schools in Rwanda. (n.d.). VVOB.

ICT skills

In an increasingly connected world, computer literacy and ICT skills are important as ever. To sustain in a competitive job market and drive the future Rwandan economy these skills are imperative, however, to develop these, access to technology is necessary. Still, many schools lack the necessary infrastructure to support technology use, such as electricity or internet connectivity (UNICEF, 2020). Furthermore, limited funding for technology initiatives and unequal access to technology creates unequal opportunities for students, especially along urban-rural lines where the former has better access and the latter worse (Gahima, 2009). Additionally, some students and teachers may not have the necessary digital literacy skills to use technology effectively. The Rwandan government has launched initiatives to improve access to technology in schools and train teachers on how to use technology in the classroom. However, there is still much work to be done to ensure that all students in Rwanda have equal access to technology and the necessary skills to use it effectively.

Inaccessibility of education

The UN Sustainable Development Goals manifest an accessible and equitable education as a common goal. In Rwanda, this goal is pursued, however far from reached . Although free, many families cannot afford the indirect costs or lost income associated with education, such as expenses for uniforms, books, meals, and school supplies, or lost income though children not being able to help on e.g. parent’s farms. These barriers are amplified by some cultural practices that prioritize household work over education, particularly for girls, which can prevent them from attending school leading to unequal access to education along gender lines. As is the case in most countries, there is a significant urban-rural divide on said factors, with education generally being more accessible in urban than in rural areas and there being fewer cultural barriers to education.

Educate! Launches in Rwanda. (n.d.). Educate!

Furthermore, children with disabilities face significant challenges in accessing education. Many schools in Rwanda lack the necessary infrastructure to support students with disabilities, such as ramps or accessible toilets which leads to significantly lower enrollment of disabled persons into primary school (UNICEF, n.d.). In addition, there is a shortage of trained teachers who can provide specialized education and support for students with disabilities.

To address these challenges, the Rwandan government has, along with providing free primary and secondary education, built more schools in rural areas and has launched initiatives to improve infrastructure and access to education in remote areas. Additionally, the government has introduced policies to promote gender equality and inclusive education which leads to the unusual observation in low-income countries that girls now outnumber boys in primary and secondary school (Rwanda Ministry of Education, 2021).

Post-genocide society 

As a post-genocide society, Rwanda has adopted a unique approach to ensure that history does not repeat itself. Instead of collectively processing embracing and learning from history Rwanda adopted an approach of forbidding any debate on history and instead providing one incontestable version of history. As the winners write the history, this version of history very much aligns with the perspective of the Tutsi that ceased power in 1991 and are still in power today. Under this approach to addressing history, any form of ethnic self-identification is prohibited and punishable. These factors lead to critical thinking being absent from education, specifically of history and political nature (Hilker, 2010). While ethnic lines are not the basis for systematical educational challenge anymore, Rwanda’s addressing of history very much embrace forms of intellectual control and suppression.




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