Primary school enrollment has increased from 59 percent to 77 percent in sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade. This increase is due in part to the drive and commitment by governments in the region to achieve universal primary education set by the Education. However, much remains to be done. With a regional fertility rate of 5.1, compared to a global average of 2.4, and a 2030 projected population size of 1.5 billion people, there needs to be an increase in the supply of educational opportunities for all children in order to meet the growing demand in sub-Saharan Africa.

Even as access to education has improved in sub-Saharan Africa, learning achievement remains alarmingly low. Regional assessments show that 28 percent of  Tanzanian sixth grade pupils are reading at grade level, only 19 percent in Kenya and less than 10 percent in Uganda. This low and uneven level of knowledge acquisition during the foundational years of primary school has adverse implications for knowledge and skills acquisition in later grades and for the long-term development and economic growth of the region. This point can not be emphasized enough.

The Africa Learning Barometer illustrates the urgent need to accelerate education progress and improve equity in learning outcomes. Disparities in achievement exist: between boys and girls – in Malawi, 52 percent of girls are not learning basic competencies at the end of primary school compared to 44 percent of boys; between urban and rural communities—in Tanzania, 10 percent of rural children are not learning compared to only 4 percent of urban children; and between the wealthy and the poor, which is the most divisive of disparities – in Botswana, 7 percent of the wealthy are not learning compared to 30 percent of the poor.

The challenge facing the region now is to continue to expand access, particularly for the most marginalized, while also implementing policy and programs to address the achievement gap. Evidence shows that policies to drive access, especially if poorly implemented, can inadvertently hurt school quality.  In Kenya, after the implementation of free primary education in 2003, schools stopped receiving tuition for enrollment, yet government disbursements stalled.  Schools had fewer resources for education at a time when enrollment was increasing dramatically. During this time, many parents moved their children from public to private schools despite an increase in costs.

Education can not be left as a privilege enjoyed by a few who are wealthy or lucky. There is a need for governments to invest more in its population. Most importantly, African governments need to evaluate early childhood learning and create a strategy to ensure that kids get the best learning affordable.