At Hotie comprehensive in Dessie, a typical urban secondary school in the highland area, headteacher Kedier Shifa is proud of his campus, built with the help of World Bank money. He is deeply concerned, though, that his 3,000 pupils are not getting the quality of teaching he would like to offer, but well-qualified teachers are scarce.
A geography graduate, with 13 years' teaching experience, Mr Kedier is still young enough to radiate a sense of urgency and hope. But his hands are tied, for without a badly-needed duplicator, no TV for showing videos, no slide projector and no cassette player, with only six microscopes and a shortage of chemicals, it is difficult to add stimulus to geography and science, let alone English. And this is the language in which all secondary education is conducted.
With pupils sometimes crammed three to a desk, in classes of from 55 to 80, Hotie's 77 teachers have little opportunity to provide more than chalk and talk. Hence it is hardly surprising teachers are unhappy with their salaries, which range from 305 birr (Pounds 30.50) a month for an elementary teacher with a certificate to the 930 birr (Pounds 93) earned by Mr Kedier. And, as is common in a country where school building and teacher recruitment is not keeping up with the population, the school must run two shifts a day.
Although the faded notice at the school gates says: "All good pupils should go to school every day", in an agricultural economy hands mean money. And, since there is no compulsion, some parents are reluctant to provide the annual registration fee to enter a child for secondary school. Even when this was reduced from 23 to 10 birr (about Pounds 1) some parents would not pay.
Since the overthrow of the Communist regime - which for all its faults did build schools, introduce the universal teaching of English and improve adult literacy - primary education has been controlled by regional governments. While elementary schools may teach six-year-olds in the regional national language, all pupils must also learn Amharic, the language of federal government, and English. This is quite a tall order.
This emphasis on learning English is hampered by the variable quality of English teaching, since few teachers - let alone children - ever hear it spoken colloquially. No wonder urban children are quick to practise their stock phrases on tourists with "Hello, how are you? What is your name?".