Africa’s education crisis does not make media headlines. Children don’t go hungry for want of textbooks, good teachers and a chance to learn. But this is a crisis that carries high costs. It is consigning a whole generation of children and youth to a future of poverty, insecurity and unemployment. It is starving firms of the skills that are the life-blood of enterprise and innovation. And it is undermining prospects for sustained economic growth in the world’s poorest region.
Tackling the crisis in education will require national and international action on two fronts: Governments need to get children into school – and they need to ensure that children get something meaningful from their time in the classroom. Put differently, they need to close the twin deficit in access and learning.
The good news story on education in Africa is that out-of-school numbers have fallen dramatically over the past decade.
Primary school enrollment has increased from 58 percent to 76 percent, gender gaps are narrowing, and more kids are making it through to secondary school. Ten years ago, countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and Senegal were treading water, or slipping backwards on enrollment. Now they are heading in the right direction. The elimination of school fees, increased investment in school infrastructure, and increased teacher recruitment have all contributed to the change.
The bad news comes in a double dose. There are still some 30 million primary school-age children out of school – one-in-every-four in the region – and progress towards universal primary education has stalled. Instead of hitting the Millennium Development Goal target of universal primary education by 2015, the out-of-school number could rise by 2 million.
Meanwhile, Africa has the world’s lowest secondary school enrollment rates. Just 28 percent of youth are enrolled in secondary school, leaving over 90 million teenagers struggling for employment in low-paid, informal sector jobs. Today, a child entering the education systems of an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country has an 80 percent chance of receiving some form of tertiary education. The comparable figure for sub-Saharan Africa is 6 percent.
Why has progress on enrollment ground to a halt? Partly because governments are failing to extend opportunities to the region’s most marginalized children. Africa has some of the world’s starkest inequalities in access to education. Children from the richest 20 percent of households in Ghana average six more years in school than those from the poorest households. Being poor, rural and female carries a triple handicap. In northern Nigeria, Hausa girls in this category average less than one year in school, while wealthy urban males get nine years.
Conflict is another barrier to progress. Many of Africa’s out-of-school children are either living in conflict zones such as Somalia and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, in camps for displaced people in their home country, or – like the tens of thousands of Somali children in Kenya – as refugees. Six years after the country’s peace agreement, South Sudan still has over 1 million children out of school.
Excerpts of Kevin Watkins piece originally published as ‘Too Little Access, Not Enough Learning: Africa’s Twin Deficit in Education’