Has the quality of Mozambique’s education been sacrificed at the altar of access?

Mozambique, in common with many other developing countries, has achieved impressive increases in access to education. Since 2000, the number of children attending primary school has more than doubled, as have the number of schools. Enrolment into secondary school also has risen rapidly — in 2004, less than 8,000 young people graduated from secondary school (12a classe) in the whole country; by 2014, the number of graduates exceeded 50,000.

These trends are positive, but they only paint half the picture. The flipside of access is whether children are learning once they are in school. The evidence here is patchy, but broadly suggests that Mozambique is lagging a long way behind many of its developing country peers in the quality, rather than the quantity, of education that it offers its children.

From access to learning

It is not difficult to grasp why the quality of schooling matters. Weak educational systems create burdens for both employers and workers. If educational certificates are not a good guide to the kinds of skills a person possesses, employers can find it difficult to identify the right kinds of qualified candidates. This can lead to higher turnover or costly recruitment processes. It can also lead employers to demand higher levels of education, even where the specific tasks of a job do not demand it. Today, technological change also is increasing the demand for skills — even labour-intensive manufacturing firms prefer better-educated workers who are able to operate equipment and follow production goals.

A major education challenge in Mozambique is to ensure that all children who start primary school go on to complete it. Data from the Ministry of Education and Human Resources suggests that in each grade of primary school, only around 80% of children go straight to the next grade. Although not all of these children drop out, the probability of a child who starts primary school completing the full seven years is less than 50%. So, many young Mozambicans are entering the labour market without having even completed a primary education.

But completing primary education does not mean young Mozambicans learn enough through schooling.  This is revealed by a recent face-to-face survey of children in Nampula implemented by TPC Moçambique, part of Facilidade-ICDS (Instituto para Cidadania e Desenvolvimento Sustentável). The survey follows a model originally developed by Pratham in India, now used in many countries. The data from these surveys are not strictly comparable, but they are informative about broad differences.

Using the survey, Table 1 compares attainment in literacy and numeracy across a range of countries. In all cases, the competencies tested refer to skills taken from each country’s curriculum that should be mastered by children after completing two years of education. We see that there are many children attending grade 5 who do not master grade 2-level skills. In Nampula, the majority of children finishing in the first phase of primary school are not mastering the basics: less than 1 in 3 children in grade 5 can read a simple story and do basic subtraction. Moreover, attainments in Mozambique appear substantially below those of children in the same grade in other low-income countries.  

Table 1: Share of children enrolled in grade 3 and grade 5 able to achieve specific competencies

Notes: table is adapted from Jones et al. (2014), adding data from TPC Moçambique (2017).

The worrying situation in Mozambique is echoed by a World Bank investigation of service quality in the education sector. As set out in the study by Bold et al. (2017), which compares results across various countries, only 38% of Mozambican 4th grade students were able to recognize letters, compared to 89% in Kenya and 50% in Nigeria. A possible reason for this situation is suggested — not only are many teachers absent from school and/or class — which means Mozambican pupils are receiving less than half the recommended four hours of teaching per day —  but also, many teachers show a poor knowledge of the curriculum they are supposed to teach.

A cup half full?

These trends in Mozambique largely reflect a political choice to prioritize access to education. While we cannot definitively say that education quality has been sacrificed at the altar of access, the patterns reflect a clear trade-off: achieving consistent and high levels of quality throughout the education system becomes more difficult as the system grows rapidly.

What does this mean going forward? My view is that, however dire we may consider the above evidence, attending school is still associated with some learning. So, the response is not to curtail access. But much greater attention needs to be placed on achieving core learning outcomes, particularly functional literacy and numeracy. The challenge is to find effective ways to achieve these outcomes, for all young people, not just push for more time in school.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors. 

Sam Jones is an Associate Professor in Development Economics at the University of Copenhagen and has worked extensively in Mozambique for over 10 years.

This article originally appeared on the comment pages of Zitmar News.


Bold, T., Filmer, D., Martin, G., Molina, E., Rockmore, C., Stacy, B., Svensson, J. and Wane, W. (2017). What do teachers know and do? does it matter? Policy Research Working Paper 7956, World Bank, Washington, DC.

Jones, S., Schipper, Y., Ruto, S. and Rajani, R. (2014). Can your child read and count? Measuring learning outcomes in East Africa. Journal of African Economies, 23(5): 643-672.

TPC Moçambique (2017): Será que as nossas crianças estão a aprender? Relatório anual sobre a aprendizagem em Moçambique (fase piloto, província de Nampula). Nampula: Facilidade — ICDS (Instituto para Cidadania e Desenvolvimento Sustentável).