In the past several decades, newly independent African countries invested a large amount of effort and money into creating systems of universal education. Yet after several decades of progress, movement towards this goal now appears to have stalled. Countries all over the continent are dealing with declining student numbers, higher drop-out rates and quality shortfalls that widen the gap between African schools and the education systems around the world.
According to Kevin Watkins, writing for the Brookings Institution, education experts elsewhere are not paying enough attention to the problems facing schools in Africa. This lack of interest is making the problem worse since its solution will require not only effort from within, but also from without.
And the problems that need to be solved are daunting.
The Center for Universal Education at Brookings/This is Africa Learning Barometer survey takes a hard look at the available evidence. In what is the first region-wide assessment of the state of learning, the survey estimates that 61 million children of primary school age – one-in-every-two across the region – will reach their adolescent years unable to read, write or perform basic numeracy tasks. Perhaps the most shocking finding, however, is that over half of these children will have spent at least four years in the education system.
But there is some good news coming out of Africa as well. The percentage of children enrolled in primary school has gone up from 58% to 76%, and the education gender gap is also shrinking. Much of this growth is due to concerted investment in education by the countries’ governments and the elimination of fees to attend school, allowing even the poorest citizens access to education. Even so, this leaves nearly 30 million African kids without an education of any kind. Watkins puts that at one in four children.
And how well kids are learning once they are in a classroom is very hard to assess. Most developed nations participate in international learning evaluations to see how they stack up against their peers; very few African countries do likewise.
The combined effects of restricted access to education and low learning achievement should be sounding alarm bells across Africa. Economic growth over the past decade has been built in large measure on a boom in exports of unprocessed commodities.
Sustaining that growth will require entry into higher value-added areas of production and international trade – and quality education is the entry ticket. Stated bluntly, Africa cannot build economic success on failing education systems. And it will not generate the 45 million additional jobs needed for young people joining the labor force over the next decade if those systems are not fixed.