Access, quality and relevance - Mozambique’s education minister discusses his country’s priorities

“This year’s Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers will be very important as the 2015 end date for education goals is just around the corner” - Zeferino Martins

Mozambique’s Education Minister Zeferino Martins this week met Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General Ransford Smith to discuss how best the Secretariat’s education team can support his ministry’s objectives.

Mr Martins, who will be attending the 18th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers (18CCEM) in Mauritius in August, said that over the past 17 years the Secretariat had been a good ally to Mozambique, particularly in the area of improving quality of education through better teaching.

Education clearly has been one of Mozambique’s fastest-growing sectors. The southern African nation, which emerged from a protracted and violent civil war just two decades ago, has made remarkable achievements towards reaching the key education goals through fast-track development, particularly in the area of teacher supply.

In 1992, just 32 per cent of children were enrolled in primary school. The country can now boast a Grade 1 admission rate of more than 75 per cent for six-year olds.

But pursuing the target of universal primary education meant many more teachers were needed very quickly. And when school fees were abolished in 2004, the demand became even more pressing.

“The rapid expansion of the system, which had been growing at 10 per cent a year, meant that teachers had to be trained in a shorter period of time, and in big numbers. We were recruiting 10,000 teachers a year, but in order to keep up the pace, we were only able to provide one-year of training, on top of their basic education. This is not ideal,” Mr Martins explained.

He said the government is now looking at how to provide professional development for the 60,000 primary school teachers already in the system, while an overhaul of the teacher training system will increase pre-service training to three years, in line with efforts to improve teaching quality and narrow the current ratio of 66 pupils per teacher.

The expansion of access has been a “Herculean challenge” but it remains a priority in Mozambique’s new five-year strategic plan for education, he added.

Mr Martins concedes that the country will not meet Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2a: ‘To ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling’.

“This is an objective we can’t achieve. But we believe we can get full enrolment by 2015 and hope to achieve this Goal by 2017, at the end of our strategic plan,” he said.

There remain considerable challenges with keeping children in school and ensuring that they achieve good grades, while HIV and AIDS continue to take a toll on the teaching profession.

But on the positive side, Mozambique has also seen a remarkable increase in the number of girls attending primary school, which now stands at 48 per cent. Mr Martins is confident that they can reach gender parity by 2015.

He explained that a key issue preventing many girls from attending school has been sexual violence - at home, in the classroom, and during the commute to and from school. In rural areas, children walk on average 4.5 km to attend school, although with the increase in the number of local schools, this is improving, he said.

Last year, with the help of UNICEF, the government launched a massive multi-sector campaign against violence and sexual abuse. Significantly, it is being led by the Ministry of Education, but in partnership with other government departments and with the support of provincial, local, traditional and religious leaders and the media.

According to UNICEF, ‘violence and sexual abuse against children in Mozambique is widespread, but remains hidden and often unrecognised. Perceived as taboo, the topic is seldom discussed or reported’.

Fronted by respected Mozambican personalities including former President Joaquim Chissano and former Prime Minister Luisa Diogo, as well as local musicians, it asks people to recognise the sexual abuse taking place in their communities. The campaign motto ‘Não dá para aceitar’ means ‘Don’t accept it’. It is early days, but Mr Martins believes it is a significant move towards public recognition and condemnation of sexual violence.

Latest statistics show that 75 per cent of Mozambique’s population live below the poverty line of US$1.25 per day. Education is a key indicator of employment and social development. Not unlike many other developing countries, Mozambique’s achievement with primary education means that there is now increased demand for secondary school places and likewise, suitably trained teachers.

Over half of Mozambicans are under 19 years of age and unemployment rates among youth are high. Mr Martins is particularly keen to see plans for technical and vocational training at secondary level bear fruit: “We are currently refining new standards and working with industry. It is significant that we have made provisions in the plan for private sector participation. The reform framework means that professionals will sit together with education and labour officials to ensure that the skills we are providing are industry-relevant.”

Mr Martins said he is looking forward to the August meeting of Commonwealth education ministers: “18CCEM will be a benchmark to assess the status of other countries – and find out what they have done to achieve the education goals. I would also like to discuss targets beyond the MDGs, particularly with regards to higher education and skills and vocational training.

“This year’s meeting will be very important as the 2015 end date for education goals is just around the corner.”