Education experts fear an entire generation of students, passing through ward secondary schools, will miss opportunities to enter science related fields in future.
The biggest threats facing these schools whose learners are mostly from poor families include a severe shortage of teachers, laboratories and books.
Failure by the government to send sufficient funds to the schools according to policy, and weak accountability for results throughout the system, are also among the setbacks.The poor performance in these schools is likely to abate the long-term prospect of shortage of scientists in the country.
The Tanzania Commission of Science and Technology (Costech), a parastatal organisation in charge of coordinating and promoting research and technology development activities, says the shortage is already affecting many sectors. The matter is serious given that over 50 per cent of scientists in the country are greying.
Most ward schools are grappling with a dire shortage of teachers in almost all subjects. Some 3,500 Form 6 leavers trained for one month to teach in those schools across country, most set up since 2006, have since left for further studies or to pursue careers in other fields.
The government is blamed for not putting in place alternative plans, despite knowing that the temporary teachers are required to go for further studies after working for two years. Few teachers have been employed to fill the gap.
The government is also blamed for not fully implementing its promise to set aside Sh8 billion (about $6.4 million) to meet the staffing requirements in the ward schools. The money was partly meant for recruitment of university graduates, among others, to teach in the ward schools.
However, graduates appointed to teach in the peripheries, such as Kigoma and Kagera, didn't report to their work station or left immediately after reporting due to the poor condition of teachers' housing, or lack of infrastructure like roads and electricity.
In Kigoma Rural District, for example, only three graduate teachers reported out of 21 posted there. However, 13 out of 14 diploma teachers posted there reported.This shows the plan to provide ward schools in rural areas with graduate teachers may not succeed. Many of them take up more lucrative jobs outside the teaching profession, or in private schools.
Preliminary findings of a research done jointly by Mzumbe University and Ken Spours, a London-based researcher, released early this year, shows ward schools have increased from 1,500 to 4,000 countrywide in a period of four years, while the teacher-student ratio has continued to fall, to one teacher for 37 students, although the researchers noted that the ratio was not standard because in some cases the teachers were reported to be in training, seminars, sick or doing administration jobs.
Professor Issa Omari, a retired education lecturer, and a consultant at the University of Dar es Salaam, says only 50 per cent of university graduates in teaching profession end up teaching in schools because the government has failed provide a conducive working environment for the profession.
"They get jobs elsewhere, where better working conditions are guaranteed and we can't force them to remain in the profession," he says.The government's education budget is generally insufficient, supplemented by loans from international financial institutions, such as the World Bank.
Professor Omari is concerned that the idea of recruiting Form 6 leavers to teach at ward schools was not well thought through, and it contributed to students in those schools performing poorly in their examinations. To become a competent teacher, one need specific skills acquired through special training, he says.
Twaweza, a brief that analyzes public expenditure, says the government ought to avail more qualified teachers to rural and community schools by addressing reasons that discourage them from staying there.
"This can be done by creating incentives to attract more teachers to the rural communities, for instance by giving them higher salaries and special benefits."
Over 3,000 ward secondary schools have been built across the country, but challenges such as lack of teachers' houses and laboratories are yet to be tackled.
While on the campaign trail in September last year, President Jakaya Kikwete said while addressing CCM supporters at Namanyere township in Rukwa District that the government had already secured funds from the African Development Bank to build laboratories at ward schools.
But according to reports from the Kigoma District education office, only one school in Kigoma Rural municipal council, out of eighteen secondary schools there, has a laboratory so far.
The students conduct practical science examinations and laboratory studies alternately. The municipal authorities say there are no adequate funds under the Secondary Education Development Programme (SEDP 1) for construction of more laboratories and classrooms.
For his side, Prof Omari says the government should set aside funds to buy mobile laboratories to help address the problem, instead of leaving the matter to the communities alone. He says the purpose of setting up ward and community schools should be to accommodate students who pass to continue with secondary education, but fail to get space in the existing schools.
"This situation largely affects students from low-income families who are more likely to enrol in ward schools. The pass rate, especially on science subjects, in these schools is increasingly dropping, and I fear the students may end up not fulfilling their dreams to pursue science professions," says Omari.
Secondary schools, such as Kitongani in Kigoma, face a severe shortage of teachers because the induction teachers sent to work there left for further studies when their contracts expired, while others changed profession.
The school has only two full-time teachers attending 936 students. It doesn't have a laboratory, so the students cannot sit for practical science subjects in their national Form 4 examinations.
Abdallah Hussein, a Form 4 student at the school, has opted to major in arts subjects due to the shortage of science teachers. Six of his classmates, who were previously keen to pursue science, have also done the same.
Kasengerema Secondary School Headmaster, Nkilinye Hamis says the school had 18 teachers two years ago, but ten left for further studies and four out of eight remaining are Kiswahili language teachers. The school has no science teacher.
"We depend on part-time teachers for all compulsory subjects in business and science," he says.
Last year, Form 3 students at the school were supposed to learn 14 physics topics, but only learnt one instead, and when this reporter visited the school they had not been taught any science lessons for four months. Most students didn't even know how a test tube looks like.
The rate of girls shying away from science subjects seems higher than boys. Out of 25 students in the science class, only five were girls. Most of the students depend on private tuition, where they pay Sh2, 000 per topic.
In the last Form 4 zonal examinations, students confided that the best performing student scored only three Cs. The overall poor performance was blamed on lack of competent science teachers.
Part of the problem is that the government shifted powers of employing teachers from the Public Service Management Department at the President's Office (PO-PSM) to the municipal councils.
Kigoma District education officer, Gaspar Bunga, commends the new arrangement because the past arrangement encouraged teachers to leave for further studies randomly, but currently teachers are released depending on availability of funds. Still, he says many teachers posted to the district don't want to work there.
Bunga believes young people in Tanzania are no longer interested in the teaching career. The shortage has severely affected teaching of science subjects.
The Kigoma District council is planning to construct more teachers' quarters under the SEPD as part of its efforts to improve the working environment.
At Kasengerema Secondary School, the headmaster also complained about the ever-changing secondary school curriculum, which entails buying new text books all the time. Ironically, the school has not received the capitation grant for more than two years, and doesn't have money to buy new books.
"We have even forgotten the procedures governing the disbursement of the funds...We once received Sh400, 000 and have never received anything again," says Mr Nkilinye Hamis, the headmaster.
According to the PETS report, by the end of the 2009/10 ï¬scal year, only 56 per cent of the approved budget for teaching materials had been released. The funding shortfall raises questions as to how the government expects teachers to do their job effectively, and the students to learn, while the essential learning materials are not provided.
Another recent study by Twaweza and HakiElimu shows that contrary to the government's commitment of sending Sh10, 000 per student to every secondary school in January 2011, 93 per cent of schools surveyed in 14 regions had received nothing, and the few which got the funds amounted to less than Sh1, 000 per student.
Mr Rakesh Rajan, the head of Twaweza, says a lot of emphasis has been put on buildings, but not learning.
"That is why the country fails because we put more efforts on inputs (classrooms, enrolment and desks). For example, the amount of money Tanzania spends on education today is three times more than 10 years ago and the country is being praised internationally for increasing enrolment but evidence shows that increasing inputs doesn't lead to better results," he says.
Little action has been taken despite this and other studies indicating the quality of education is falling.
For his part, the director general of COSTECH, Dr Hassan Mshinda, says research focused on education matters in Tanzania is still limited. According to him, there are solutions which have been worked elsewhere, but their impacts are not evaluated scientifically so as to help in the making of informed decisions.
He says, for example, "studies done elsewhere have shown that investment in teachers in Singapore in terms of training and retention have helped increase the level of education."
In Kagera Region, the shortage of teachers in general, and science teachers in particular, is so dire that some schools are forced to take students to Dar es Salaam for tuition where they hope to find good teachers, months before their Form 4 examinations.
Bujugo Secondary School decided to send all thirty students to Green Acres Secondary School in Dar es Salaam for six months before they sat for their National Form Four Examination.
The school headmaster, Godwin Rweikiza, says the school is facing an acute shortage of teachers, especially in science subjects, but the trip to Dar es Salaam helped the students access the best teachers and books.
"The purpose of taking the students to Dar es Salaam was to inspire them to be committed to their studies because there is a serious lack of role models in the village. It was thought taking them to Dar es Salaam would expose them to other students," says Rweikiza.
Their stay at the Green Acres Secondary Schools for more than six months challenged them to learn more after realising that they were not studying hard enough.
After the Form 4 results, the school became second in the region for schools with less than 35 students. "That was an achievement compared to other schools because we had only one student who failed in the exams," says Rweikiza.
But when the school tried to initiate the same programme this year, the municipal council rejected the request, saying it wasn't in the school curriculum. Nderakindo Kessy, an independent education analyst, says the biggest weakness is in the education system is "lack of relevance".
Learners spend many years in school only to come out without "learning" anything tangible.
He says most science books are not properly written and are often full of mistakes. He wants science-related syllabus to be made clear and students be encouraged to learn science after developing interest in the field.
"The Education Material Authority Community (EMAC) shouldn't have the last say on the matter in a country with an education system that involves teachers, parents and students," he says.