In December, Rwanda’s government announced that all Rwandan primary schools should teach in English, a language many teachers in the country cannot understand or speak. This is the third time in 11 years that the government has introduced a major language shift. Education officials, donors and others are now scrambling to respond.

What’s behind these shifts in the language of instruction? And what are the wider implications? Here’s what you need to know.

1. Here’s what just changed

This new plan requires schools to teach in English starting in the first grade. Yet many primary schoolteachers in Rwanda don’t speak English — a 2018 study found just 38 percent of those teachers likely to be affected by the change have a working knowledge of English. This statistic likely obscures much lower percentages of spoken English in rural areas outside of Rwanda’s Anglophone-friendly capital city of Kigali.

Analysts cite concerns about the lack of planning in the government’s announcement. The decision also appears to reject the scientific evidence that suggests primary-school students may learn best in their first language.

2. This isn’t the first attempt to shift to English

Over the past decade, Rwanda has introduced several language changes without much evidence of planning. Before 2008, teachers taught primary students using the local language, Kinyarwanda, before switching to French in fourth grade. But that October, the government announced it was changing the language of instruction used in all schools to English. The Ministry of Education ran a crash course for teachers in English over the term break and expected them to use English in early 2009.

Things didn’t go well. After three years, 8 in 10 teachers still had a “beginner” or “elementary” knowledge of English. Under pressure from international donor agencies, the government modified the policy in 2011: Teachers would use Kinyarwanda for the first three years of instruction and then shift to teaching in English for the upper three grades of primary school.

Switching the language of instruction would be difficult in any context, but the lack of planning compounded the challenge. Normally, education officials make policy decisions in Rwanda through strategic planning processes that guide priorities and budgeting. But Rwanda’s presidential cabinet bypassed these processes to issue the 2008 language directive. Some primary schoolteachers resorted to translating their old French textbooks to plan for lessons.

In a 2012 interview, John Rutayisire, then director of the Rwanda Education Board, explained the government’s rationale behind the rapid changes: “We were not prepared to wait for the conventional 10 or 20 years to adopt a more strategic longer plan, because the interests of this country are more paramount than the difficulties that people can face in the shorter term,” he said.

Experts expressed concern at the time that the lack of planning would allow only the most privileged or talented students to stand a chance of doing well in school. More than 10 years later, this appears to still be the case: 44 percent of sixth-graders are illiterate in English, a figure that is likely much higher in rural parts of the country. It means these children take their pivotal leaving examinations in a language they don’t understand.

3. What explains the politics behind this move?

It’s clear the December 2019 language shift will pose a heavy burden on children and teachers across the country, particularly in poor rural areas that already struggle to attract qualified teachers. So why did the government decide to do this?

The shift aligns with the government’s cultural alliances and economic ambitions by facilitating regional integration and positioning the country in the global market economy. In 2007, it joined the East African Community, which is predominantly Anglophone. In 2009, Rwanda joined the Commonwealth and will host a heads-of-government meeting in June of this year.

Domestic power dynamics matter, too. Rwanda’s ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), sought to distance itself from its Franco-Belgian colonial roots — and specifically France and its alleged complicity in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. Many of the core members of the RPF grew up in exile in Uganda and studied English. Thus, some scholars see the efforts to switch to English as a power move benefiting those in key positions of influence.

But not all Rwandans experience language changes equally. Wealthier families can send their children to private primary schools. These schools have more resources, including English-speaking teachers, and they can better manage the shocks of an education system whose language policies are in constant flux. Children from poor households, in contrast, go to government schools where teachers often have a limited grasp of English, and where teaching and learning materials are scarce.

4. What happens now?

The newest language change puts students and teachers in a difficult situation. Many teachers will be required to teach in a language they don’t know. For students, instruction — and testing — will be in a language most parents don’t speak at home and that children don’t understand.

There is also a growing concern that the focus on English is putting children’s learning — in any language — in greater peril. Rwanda’s leadership has committed to introducing policies that are inclusive of all Rwandans, and its push to expand access to education for all children is an example of this. But some local media outlets now question how the most recent move fits into the leadership’s plans to improve education quality. In absence of planning, the language change will disproportionately burden children and teachers in poor rural areas, deepening a divide between an urban Anglophone elite and the rest of the country.

A few days after announcing its latest language change, the government appeared to backtrack slightly. It issued another statement that the shift to English will happen “within a determined period to be communicated by the Ministry of Education,” resulting in an uneasy status quo. The ministry has not publicly offered any further details of when or how this change will happen.

Timothy P. Williams (@TimWilliamsPhD) is an affiliated researcher with the Effective States and Inclusive Development program at the University of Manchester. His paper on children’s education policy in Rwanda was the co-recipient of the Joyce Cain Award from the Comparative and International Education Society.