A massive drive to get more children into school has seen enrolments in Ethiopia leap from three to nine million in the last decade, with more females attending classes in urban centres, helping close the enormous gender gap that exists in the country.
Despite the advances, however, analysts believe Ethiopia is unlikely to achieve universal primary education under the 2015 UN Millennium Development Goals programme.
"What has been achieved in the education sector, so far, must be commended," Dirribsa Dufera, a researcher with the Institute of Educational Research in Addis Ababa, told IRIN. Still, he noted, too much emphasis had been placed on getting children into schools at the expense of other issues that could improve their education and keep them in class.
He cited four areas – continued access to schools, the quality of education, equity in terms of girls attending schools and management – as key factors to educational progress.
"Statistics of enrolment can disguise considerable problems in other areas," he added. "The quality of education has not improved as we had expected."
In Afar region, in northeastern Ethiopia, only eight percent of females were in school. Overcrowding in classrooms, teacher training and the quality and the numbers of textbooks available to children was also hampering learning, he added.
Ethiopia, he said, needed to cut primary education by two years – bringing the length of primary education into line with other developing countries – from eight years to six.
"Many teachers are not qualified for teaching at that level and reducing the years in class may help lower the drop out rate," he said.
Four million children still remain out of school. Female enrolment, especially in rural areas, still lags far behind males. An issue of increasing concern is the substantial drop out rate. While enrolments have increased, so have the drop out rates. A third of children fail to complete the first year of primary education, according to government figures, which had set a target of 14 percent. The teacher-to-pupil ratios exceed targeted proportions of 60 children per teacher.
Education minister Genet Zewdie told IRIN that key issues the government was trying to address include bringing down student teacher ratios and improving quality. Sixty thousand of the 160,000 teachers in the country were being given additional English language training, she added.
She also said teachers earn higher wages compared to other civil servants and receive extra training and rapid promotions are helping to attract new staff, urging local communities to work alongside the government to help fund their own school programmes where shortages exist.
"Community mobilisation will help us gain resources," said the minister, adding that the biggest impediment to improving the education system in the country was lack of resources. The current annual education budget is around US $509 million.
Universal primary education is a key target of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals - an ambitious initiative that aims to eradicate extreme poverty, end hunger and slow the spread of HIV/AIDS.
"Within 10 years definitely we should achieve the goals," Zewdie said.
Mehari Taddele Maru, director of the Office for University Reform at Addis Ababa University, told IRIN that implementation of policies was weak.
"The policies are very good and the achievements that have been made by the government is astonishing in areas like the numbers attending schools," he said. "But we suffer from a lack of classrooms, laboratories and facilities - that means implementing the policies is very difficult."
Haile Wolde Mikel, president of the privately run Africa Beza College in Addis Ababa with 5,000 students, said the private sector was trying to meet the gap the government could not fill.
"Without the private sector, the government would not be able to meet the demand," he told IRIN. "Private colleges are now training around 20,000 students a year."
Ethiopia’s educational system has become an issue for federal elections due in 2005. Opposition parties and the government have clashed in televised public debates on how best to address shortcomings and weaknesses in the education sector. Beyene Petros, vice chair of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, a 14-strong coalition of opposition groups, told IRIN the education policy needed overhauling.