Somalilandsun: International concerns over the state of education in Africa center on the large number of children who are out of school – currently about one-third of the global total. But while expanding access to education on the continent must clearly remain a priority, policymakers should also pay much closer attention to what and how children learn.
Today, even the many African children in school experience problems. In Sub-Saharan Africa, up to 40% leave primary school without basic skills. The many over-age children within the system are more likely to drop out overall. And girls and the very poorest children fare the worst on international comparisons of educational performance. The Africa Learning Barometer reports, for instance, that “in Malawi, 52% of girls are not learning basic competencies at the end of primary school compared to 44% of boys,” and that “in Botswana, 7% of the wealthy are not learning compared to 30% of the poor.”
Moreover, Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s fastest-growing school-age population. At current rates, about 20% of children in the region will still be excluded from schooling in 2030, the quality of education will decline further, and the proportion of qualified teachers will likely continue to fall, as it has for the last two decades. On top of all this, disruptions caused by COVID-19 have fueled fears that many children who have had to stay out of school may never return.
UNESCO and the Global Education Monitoring Report have outlined several policy options to address these challenges, including increasing the supply of classrooms, eliminating school fees, and easing obstacles to progression such as national examinations. To encourage greater secondary-school enrollment, governments could consider increasing the number of years of compulsory schooling and enforcing international conventions against child labor more strictly. Above all, the options presented – more schools and trained teachers, and wider reach – would require at least a six-fold increase in current funding levels.
But this decades-long focus on expanding access and “catching up” with the rest of the world leaves many other important questions underexplored. In particular: do current African school systems prepare individuals to thrive in a rapidly changing world? To what extent should we address other, more basic concerns, such as the appropriateness of curriculum content, the mode of delivery, and even the very idea of the traditional classroom or school as the only location for learning?
Educational reform in Africa that goes beyond increasing access has had mixed results. Curricula still largely resemble those inherited from former colonial powers, which were aimed at training clerical and technical workers for colonial administrations, and, as such, focused on imparting European economic, social, and cultural norms. But the purpose of education today has expanded to enable the development of the whole person within their context, and to equip them with the skills to succeed.
The 1990 World Declaration on Education for All recognized that basic education should, first and foremost, aim to situate a child within their environment, and enable them to develop their skills fully in order to respond appropriately to that environment’s opportunities, constraints, and inconsistencies. Besides seeking to expand access to education, therefore, policymakers should also contextualize, simplify, and democratize school curricula and teaching methods.
Locally relevant education in a language that the child understands offers the best hope for improving their acquisition of basic skills, which is critical for attaining the higher-level skills needed to build a scientifically literate society. There are efforts across Africa to design curricula that better reflect local conditions, but many fail at the implementation stage, owing to inadequate development of accompanying pedagogical resources and support for teachers through the transition.
Closely related to contextualization is the need for simplification. Current African school curricula are overloaded with content – a legacy of the colonial era, when most of what people needed to learn in order to get a job had to be learned at school. But not all education happens only in schools, where the focus should be on the learning that schools can best offer, such as mastering foundational numeracy and literacy skills. Vietnam, for example, has concentrated successfully on teaching a few things, and its education system now compares favorably with the world’s best.
As for democratization, COVID-19 has revealed deep inequalities in education systems, but it has also created an opportunity to consider additional ways of expanding access to schooling. Innovations in digital platforms and teachers’ adaptation to the “new normal” indicate the potential benefits of expanding education beyond schooling, while also closing gaps in learning provision. In addition to broadening access to basic education, democratization also means giving all children an equal opportunity to pursue further and specialized education. This requires identifying clear educational pathways, and providing every child with the necessary facilities within a reasonable distance.
Today, children account for almost half of Africa’s population, and their total will reach one billion by 2055. If properly skilled, this vast human resource could help to lift hundreds of millions of Africans out of poverty – a dividend that would benefit both the continent and the world.
The education picture in Africa is not uniformly bleak; some experiments with approaches such as mother-tongue instruction and differentiated incentives for teachers are beginning to yield results, and can be built upon. But alongside enhancements to existing systems, policymakers need to recognize and change what no longer works, even as they focus on expanding access.
By Connie Nshemereirwe, a member of the Steering Committee of the Africa Science Leadership Programme at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus, is an independent science and policy facilitator, educational researcher, and a former co-chair of the Global Young Academy.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2021