CHAPTER ONE: Background of Education in Tanzania

The Tanzanian education system would not have existed without a mention of both colonial Germanic and British education systems.  Prior to the German and British education systems, it is documented that formal Western schooling began in around 1868 by missionaries of different denominations. Before the missionaries, an informal tribal education existed in each of the more than 120 tribes in the country. The tribal education consisted mainly of teaching youngsters the rituals of becoming adults. Majority of this type of learning took place through storytelling, dance, and experiential learning activities through which life lessons were passed on from one generation to the next. There was no formal schooling as we have come to understand it today before the missionaries.

The first formal schools came during the German East Africa colony. The German East Africa colony consisted of Mainland Tanganyika, Rwanda, and Burundi. German colonized Tanganyika from the time of the Berlin conference otherwise known as the scramble for Africa, 1885-1886, to the end of World War I. During this time, German run its own education system aimed at propagating its colonial rule. After World War II, the British took over Tanganyika as it’s protectorate. Like the Germans, the British too run an education system with similar aims.

 The German Education System for German East Africa

Carl Peters and several of his agents of the German East Africa Company made treaties with the then Germen East Africa mainland chiefs between the years of 1884 and 1885 to buy parts of the mainland. In 1887 officials from the German government came to German East Africa to establish a colonial rule which lasted until 1914. The primary role of the Germans officials was to maintain law and order and to further develop communication with the locals in order to open up the country for trade and commerce.

The arrival of missionaries in early 1900s saw an establishment of a rudimentary school system in the mainland German East Africa. The schools were mainly Evangelical Christian schools. It is documented that by the end of the year 1900, there were 600 mission schools with 50,000 pupils. And, by the end of 1914, there were about 1000 schools with 150,000 pupils.  At first, the Germans had no plans to establish an education system in German East Africa, however, the need arose for them to train junior and local civil servants to run their administrative teams. The purpose of the schools then, was:

  1. to enable the native to be used in the local government,
  2. to cultivate a liking of order, cleanliness, diligence, and dutifulness and sound knowledge of German customs and patriotism,

By the end of 1914, the Germans had established 60 three-year village primary schools, 9 two year central schools and one high school in Tanga that provided clerical, industrial, and teacher training for up to 500 pupils. Unfortunately, all these schools stopped serving children in 1914 because of the initial fighting in the World War One (WWI).

The British Education System of Tanganyika

At the end of the WWI, the Germans found themselves on the losing end of the war. Thus, winners, the British and colleague divided German East Africa among themselves. Great Britain took over Tanganyika as a trust territory under the League of Nations. The British came with their own views of an education system of Tanganyika. Remember, the name Tanganyika did not exist until the British took over mainland German East Africa and called it Tanganyika.

The British used an indirect rule to govern Tanganyika. Therefore, the main purpose of the British education system was to educate people so that in return they will help them to rule the country. The British were more concerned with the territory making a profit for them rather than uplifted morals of the locals through an education. To accomplish the indirect rule task, the British opened a school in Tabora in 1924 to educate only the sons of the elite and of the local chiefs. However, the British government move was not well received by the Anglican church. The Anglican missionaries were against this plan of educating only the sons of chiefs. Their goal was to create a population of educated and god fearing African Christians. Thus, through the University Mission of Central Africa (UMCA) the Anglican missionaries played a key role in opening up schools across Tanganyika and to educating all the locals regardless of their status.

Below see two tables showing mission schools contribution to schooling in Tanganyika in 1948. 

Table 1.

The overall contribution of mission schools in education in 1948.

Total pupils in schools Pupils in aided mission schools % of total Pupils in unaided mission schools % of total




% of pupils in mission schools aided and unaided.
Overall Primary Enrolment (I-VI) including girls’ boarding schools 128,649 93,044 72.32 18,447 12.5 75.75


1,766 837 44.4 47.4
Vocational & Industrial 526 225 42.8 60 11.4 54.2
Teacher Training 2154 1538 71.4 109 5 76.4


 Table 2.

The mission contribution in girls’ education in 1948.

Total pupils in schools Pupils in aided mission schools % of total Pupils in unaided mission schools % of total




% of pupils in mission schools aided and unaided.
Overall Primary Enrolment (I-VI) 41,408 29,998 72.4 5,470 13.5 85.7


87 43 50 50
Vocational & Industrial 69 51 50 18 26 100
Teacher Training 437 389 89 89


 The Present System

Currently, Tanzania has an eclectic education system. It starts with the kindergarten level for two years. This level is also called pre-primary education in Tanzania. After, the pre-primary education follows the primary level of education which lasts for seven years, then, the secondary school level goes on for four years, and then, follows the advanced secondary school level for two years.  After completing an advanced secondary education, students then attend a three or four-year bachelor degree offering institution or attend other non-degreed institutions.

All in all, progress in the education system has been made since independence; however, there are still areas that needs improvement. “As of 2007, Secondary enrollment in Tanzania is among the lowest in the world at 20%.” It is important to note that, Tanzania has one of the highest net enrollment rates in Africa at the primary school level, however, a huge number drop out before finishing primary education. The question we need to ask ourselves are:

  • Why many of our children are dropping out of primary school?
  • Is it because of the teaching methods used are too boring and non-engaging for many of our children?
  • What can the system do differently to keep our children in school especially at the primary school level?

At the advanced levels of secondary education, the situation is even worse: the net enrollment rate for ordinary level secondary education is 30.8 percent, and for advanced level secondary education is only 1.9 percent. Again, we need to ask ourselves:

  • Why so few of our children are entering advanced level secondary education?
  • Does the way we teach our children has anything to do with it?
  • What can the system do differently to improve performance and efficiency in our schools?

Table 3.

 Reading task performance for primary school graduates (Out of Ten Students)

Can read a basic Swahili sentence 3 Can read basic English sentence 1
Cannot read a basic Swahili sentence 7 Cannot read a basic English sentence 9
Total 10 Total 10


The results of a study by USAID on the quality of education showed that when Tanzanian children finish primary level their performance is extremely poor with seven out of every ten children unable to read basic Swahili and nine out of every ten children unable to read basic English.”  A UNICEF report on the status of the education system in Tanzania shows that while attendance and participation in primary school is high in the 80% and 90% range, secondary school participation and net attendance percentages in 2008-2012 for both male and female students are between 24% and 26%.

Table 4.

Average school participation rates estimates 2008-2012

Primary School Enrolment Rates (%). Ordinary Level Secondary School Enrolment Rate (%) Advanced Level Secondary School Enrolment Rate (%).
80-90% 20% 1.9%


 The Multifaceted Nature of the Current Education System

Currently, there is a multifaceted pre–primary and primary school education in Tanzania. Composed of English Medium Schools where the very minority attends. Students who attend these schools are from the political elite and affluent families. In contrast, the majority of Tanzanian kids attends public primary schools. Within the public education system, facility, resources, and staffing quality differences between schools in rural areas and those in urban areas are quite bad.

Those attending public primary and secondary schools in rural areas normally lack books, teaching aids, and are schooled in dilapidated teaching environment. In addition, the schools have teachers who are ill-prepared to teach courses assigned to them. Furthermore, there is high rates of absenteeism among teachers. Moreover, there are no professional development opportunity for the teachers to engage in professional learning and development. The kind of professional development geared at enhancing proficiency in their teaching styles, teaching methods, classroom management, and differentiating instruction to meet the needs of all leaners.  Teachers lack professional development to become masters of the content and pedagogy in the areas they teach.

In summary, before the onset of western type of education, tribal education was the only way children learned adult rituals and responsibilities in the then Tanganyika hinterland. Tribal education was transmitted mainly through experiential learning and through an oral tradition. Western education in Tanzania started way back before the country became German and British colony. Missionaries introduced western type of education in Tanzania in the mid-1800s. Actual systems of education were later introduced by the German and the British colonial government. To note here, is that, western type of education was serving mainly the interests of colonial governments through training sons of chiefs to continue and support their indirect rule system.  If any western education credit is due, it should be given  to the missionaries who deliberately and single-handedly taught many African children from all walks of life.


Available upon request.


12 thoughts on “CHAPTER ONE: Background of Education in Tanzania

  1. Elia Isd



  2. Harid Mwambula

    Please I am doing research and I have used your views but I am lacking references. Kindly can you assist the reference?


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