In the past, children were taught Rwandan culture and values by their parents and relatives throughout their childhood. A community-based education system (itorero) included storytelling and dancing, as well as practical work skills. Boys and girls were trained separately. Boys were expected to follow their fathers' footsteps and become the head of a household, whereas girls were trained in the duties of housekeeping and child rearing. 

Missionaries introduced formal education to Rwanda in 1900. Until independence, the system was dominated by the ruling Tutsis. When independence was declared in 1962, the country's new leaders recognized the need for education for all Rwandans. Primary education was made free and compulsory for six years.

The conflict in 1994 disrupted the school system. Schools were looted or damaged and many teachers were killed or forced to leave the country. At present, many children are unable to attend school. Even before the war, however, the dropout rate was very high. Only 25% of Rwandan children completed four years of education and fewer than 2% of all students attended secondary school. Today, education is not compulsory, and students must pay tuition fees, although government subsidies are available for genocide survivors.

In the formal system, children start primary school at age six. For the first four years, they study in Kinyarwanda. At age 10, they start to learn French. Secondary school consists of two three-year cycles. The first cycle provides general education; the second cycle prepares students for college or university. Students who cannot or do not want to attend university may complete the first three years of secondary school and transfer into a technical program. There is a five-year secondary school program for training primary school teachers.

University education is available only to a few Rwandans. Students must take an entrance examination to gain admission to university. The National University of Rwanda in Butare (established 1963) offers undergraduate degrees and teacher-training courses for secondary school teachers. There are also several private universities.

  Did you know?
Educational opportunities differ for boys and girls. Although an equal number of girls and boys enrol in primary schools, girls are more likely than boys to drop out or be withdrawn by their parents. Very few women pursue secondary or postsecondary education.