Sao Tome and Principe: Investing in teachers to tackle learning poverty

Read how the government of Sao Tome and Principe is working to improve teaching quality to ensure students learn basic literacy and numeracy skills in the early grades, thus limiting the number of repeaters and making the overall system more efficient.

August 04, 2021 by Bleizy Costa , Ministry of Education of São Tomé and Príncipe , Leandro Costa, The World Bank, and Fatima Alves
4 minutes read
A teacher writing on the blackboard in a school in Sao Tome and Principe. Credit: Unicef São Tomé and Principe
A teacher writing on the blackboard in a school in Sao Tome and Principe.
Credit: Unicef São Tomé and Principe

Sao Tome and Principe (STP) achieved universal access to primary education in 2010 and provide significant coverage for children between the ages of 4 and 5 in preschool, placing the country above the average for sub-Saharan Africa.

However, quality still poses a significant challenge. Reading practice in the early grades begins with sentences such as “calulu (a typical meal) has okra” or “I like to eat safú (a local fruit).” Although these words are familiar to children in the country, many of them had difficulty or simply could not reading, even after years of schooling.

Low learning levels and high repetition rates

The 2019 National Assessment shows that two out of three students at the end of grade 2 and one in four of 4th graders do not have the basic skills in reading. The low learning performance is also characterized by geographic disparities and is made even more complex by successive failures: In 2017, 14% of STP students enrolled in primary education were repeaters.

This is much higher than the average repetition rate in sub-Saharan Africa (9.9%). At 23%, the percentage of repeaters is significantly higher in grade 2. The difficulties in the early grades are amplified over time: only 76% of the most vulnerable students reach the 6th grade compared to 96% of high-income students.

Recent studies show that interventions involving teachers in low and middle-income countries are particularly successful in improving educational quality (see references below). Having a better knowledge about what is happening in Sao Tome and Principe’s classrooms is the starting point for planning policies to tackle learning poverty.

5 findings from a study on teaching practices

In 2019, a GPE program development grant supported a study in 13 elementary schools with high and low learning performance, involving 2nd-grade classroom observations using the TEACH tool and a questionnaire, and a focused group with elementary teachers.

Here are five takeaways from the study:

  1. During 16% of class time, the teacher does not provide a learning activity, and only 18% of the time are all students engaged in the task.
  2. Most teachers (72%) treat all students respectfully. However, 62% of teachers do not use positive language in their communication with students.
  3. 62% of teachers do not provide critical thinking activities. The instruction is based on students listening to the teacher explain the concept and then copying the examples from the blackboard.
  4. Teaching and learning materials are outdated and textbooks are not free, with most students unable to purchase them or cover the cost of photocopying them. The materials also often reinforce pervasive gender stereotypes. They are not adapted to the local languages, even with 16% of teachers stating that all of their students belong to families that only speak local languages at home.
  5. Most teachers (80%) do not foster socio-emotional skills that encourage students to succeed inside and outside the classroom. Only 28% of teachers believe that most of their students will pass the 4th-grade certification, indicating a low expectation for students’ success.

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted education in many ways and threatened to amplify education inequalities and an existing learning crisis, mainly among the most vulnerable children. In Sao Tome and Principe, close to 5,800 students enrolled in 2nd grade this year, representing almost 1,000 fewer students than before the pandemic.

In response to these challenges, a US$2.5 million grant from GPE is helping the government develop training and professional development program for teachers. The program has three main components:

  • Structured materials (for example, lesson plans printed and also available for tablets) to teachers and early grades students, focusing on, for example, development of phonological awareness relationship between Portuguese and local languages)
  • Teacher in-service training aimed at using the structured materials and improving classroom practice
  • Coaching program based on classroom observation tailored, focused, practical to create an environment of professional development, confidence, and motivation.

The grant will also strengthen the current learning assessment system, upgrade the EMIS, and the participation on the international assessment Program for Analyzing Education Systems [Programme d'Analyse des Systèmes Educatifs de la CONFEMEN, PASEC].

The expected result is better teaching to ensure students learn basic literacy and numeracy skills in the early grades, in turn limiting the number of repeaters and making the overall system more efficient.


  • Kremer, M., C. Brannen & R. Glennerster (2013). The challenge of education and learning in the developing world. Science, 340(6130): 297–300
  • Evans, D. K. &A. Popova. (2016). What Really Works to Improve Learning in Developing Countries? An Analysis of Divergent Findings in Systematic Reviews. Oxford University Press. Washington, D.C
  • Béteille, Tara & Evans, David (2018). Successful Teachers, Successful Students: Recruiting and Supporting Society’s Most Crucial Profession. The World Bank

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