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Quality education delivers growth – but Africa’s scorecard remains poor

The African Union has dedicated 2024 to improving education, a task requiring new thinking and rapid technological adoption.

Better education in Africa could mean about 47 million fewer poor people by 2043. It could also add an extra US$368.4 billion (equivalent to 4.3%) to gross domestic product (GDP) and additional gains in GDP per capita of about US$240.

This is according to a study by the African Futures and Innovation programme at the Institute for Security Studies. Other research shows that each additional year of schooling is associated with an increase of nearly 0.6% in long-term GDP growth rates.

Despite the palpable benefits of education, Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, still struggles to improve educational outcomes. The 2022 progress report on implementing the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063 reveals that Africa failed to meet all the education targets, with an overall performance score of 44%. Access is still limited at the basic level, and many children of school-going age are not attending classes.

Education enrolment vs completion rates: 2019 Education enrolment vs completion rates: 2019

Source: International Futures model

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), more than 20% of children between six and 11 years, and over 33% of young people between 12 and 14, are not in school in sub-Saharan Africa. For those aged 15 to 17, that figure is 60%.

These figures reveal the leakages and rapid contraction of the education funnel in Africa, where increasing numbers of children drop out along the way. While gross enrolment for a primary school in sub-Saharan Africa stood at 101.7% in 2019, the figure for lower and upper levels of schooling dropped acutely to 58.4% and 36.6% respectively. Tertiary education attendance levels are the worst – with gross tertiary enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa below 10%.

Africa failed to meet all the Agenda 2063 education targets, with an overall performance score of 44%

Besides these challenges for African youth, there is also unequal access to education, with women most affected. UNESCO says an estimated nine million girls in Africa between six and 11 never go to school, as opposed to six million boys in the same age category.

The quality of education in Africa is also poor. The State of Global Learning Update says almost 90% of people in Africa cannot read with comprehension by the age of 10. A 2018 World Bank report identifies the four immediate causes of poor quality education in sub-Saharan Africa.

First, many children arrive unprepared to learn because of illness, malnutrition or income deprivation. Second, teachers often lack the necessary skills or motivation. Third, teaching and learning materials fail to reach classrooms at the right time or improve learning. Finally, poor management and governance undermine schooling quality.

Another problem is the considerable mismatch between the kind of education offered and that required by employers and the job market. An African Development Bank report found that most people who finish school do not have the skills needed by available work opportunities. And young people generally lack the soft skills, social networks and professional experience to compete with older job applicants.

About nine million girls and six million boys in Africa aged between six and 11 never go to school

The African Center for Economic Transformation notes a lack of emphasis on science, technology, engineering, maths, technical and vocational education, and higher-order cognitive and analytical skills. Indeed, in 2019, only 8.5% of upper secondary school students were enrolled in vocational programmes in sub-Saharan Africa, while just 14.2% of tertiary graduates had a science and engineering background – considered vital to the future of work.

The scale of these challenges calls for urgent action. The AU has dedicated 2024 to education. The goal is to ‘educate an African fit for the 21st century’ by increasing access to inclusive, lifelong, quality and relevant education. Achieving this is possible but will require concerted effort, new ways of thinking, rapid technological adoption and committed governance.

Africa must improve every level of education to ensure it retains students and increases the progression rate to expand the pool of learners at each successive stage. This can be achieved by implementing policies such as free senior secondary school and targeted school feeding programmes to increase enrolments and survival rates.

Good quality education is vital, as is offering vocational and technical training rather than focusing just on academic teaching, as occurs in many African countries. Simply pushing children through school is not a solution if their education doesn’t address the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, and allow them to build the skills required for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Quality education is vital, as is vocational and technical training rather than just academic teaching

African countries should dedicate extra hours to numeracy and literacy at pre-primary and primary levels to improve foundational learning for reading and maths. New teaching technologies and methods must be used to meet future challenges, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Partnerships with telecommunication firms and internet service providers can reduce the cost of broadband services and mobile data, which impedes virtual learning.

More parental involvement, upskilling teachers, and designing teaching and learning methods that are sensitive to local conditions are central to creating functioning education systems throughout Africa.

Once the basics are in place, technology such as 5G, artificial intelligence and augmented reality could help drive progress. Careful planning, innovation, investment and leadership are needed to reverse the continent’s education backlog.

This article was first published in the African Futures and Innovation blog ‘Africa Tomorrow’.

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