Excited pupils head for school but funding crisis awaits them

African times: Moshi, Tanzania
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The Independent Online

On every dusty street corner in Tanzania, excited groups of children in crisp blue and white uniforms proudly clutch exercise books.

On every dusty street corner in Tanzania, excited groups of children in crisp blue and white uniforms proudly clutch exercise books.

The sense of enthusiasm and expectancy would brighten the eyes of even the most jaded British teacher and is astonishing in a country where, until now, two and a half million children of primary school age have never even set foot in a classroom.

The new year rush for schooling follows the Tanzanian government's decision to abolish fees for primary education as part of a programme that will cost about $970m (£700m) over the next three years. Improving education was a key condition set by the World Bank and the IMF before granting Tanzania debt relief of $3bn in November last year.

Whether the money will trickle down to those most in need is a question on the mind of Gerald Komu, head teacher of Chombo Primary School on the lower slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. This year he has enrolled 90 first-year pupils, aged seven and eight. Under the education programme, he is supposed to get about $10 a child. But there is no sign of this year's money, so the youngest pupils are crammed into a small classroom with no textbooks and no pencils.

The mud floor is pitted with holes, children are distracted by nesting birds that fly in and out of the unglazed windows and those at the back of the class can't read the blackboard because it is so shiny and cracked. There are no proper toilets and no kitchen for cooking the children's lunch.

However, there is a shell of a building in the school grounds which was erected in 1967 with money from a British charity but never finished. A team of parents are busy plastering the walls, while others are turning planks of wood into school benches.

It will cost more than 4m shillings (£4,000) to turn half the building into a classroom for Year 1 and so far the government has contributed 264,000 shillings – enough for 15 bags of cement and 10 sacks of lime. Another 710,000 shillings has come from parents, which they can ill afford.

Chombo is in a coffee-growing area in one of the wealthier parts of Tanzania but the collapse of world prices has brought hard times.

Although the abolition of the basic primary school fee is welcome, Kate Dyer, who runs a local NGO called Maarifa Ni Ufunguo (Education is the Key), points out that it is only a small proportion of what parents pay. As well as fees for equipment and sports, they may have to pay for the night watchman and the cook, and "other little expenses to smooth the way". She fears parents will soon grow disillusioned and revert to keeping their children at home.

The government of Tanzania faces difficulties in funding its ambitious education programme. To supplement the money freed up by debt relief, it has drawn deep into its domestic budget but there is still a funding gap which can only be met by taking out a new loan.

As a temporary measure, the government has offered to provide tents for the thousands of children who have turned up at school to find there are not enough classrooms.

Jenny Cuffe's report from Tanzania can be heard on BBC Radio 4's File On 4 at 8pm today.