Achievements have been made

Measured by number of children sitting in classrooms, Africa has registered some remarkable achievements. The net enrollment rate, which measures the proportion of primary school age children registered for school, increased from 60% in 2000 to 76% in 2009. That is a 16% rise. Over the same period, out of school numbers fell from 42 million to 30 million according to data from UNESCO. Given that Africa has the world’s fastest growing primary school age population, these outcomes are even more impressive than the headline data suggest. Gender disparities have also declined. And there has been a marked increase in secondary school participation, with enrollment rate increasing by 10% from 24% to 34% – yet still very low. Despite your take on Millennium Development Goals, some countries are within reach notably, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, and Senegal.

Millions of children still out of school

Impressive as growth in school participation may be, and that Africa is on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goals targets if the current trends continue and there is not reason to believe they will change, Africa still face a lot of challenges in the area of education.

Disconcerting as these figures may be, they tell us a partial story. So let us discern a few of these things. Some 12 million African children enter school only to drop out before completing primary school. Twelve million is a lot of people, half the population of Ghana and 4 million short the population of New York City, and just about the population of Zimbabwe. Education is so important to be missed by 12 million children – by the population of an entire nation (Zimbabwe) even if these are the figures of the whole continent. These 12 million primary school dropouts will drop because of factors such as formal and informal fees, textbooks costs, and the quality of education.

The quality is especially important. People only take part in an activity that they expect to benefit from such an action, or to lose from not participating in such an action. If primary education does not increase the value of whoever has attained it, people will not attend school.

Africa education deficit does not end with primary education as there are 19 million adolescents out of school, many of the making the transition to work without any education (UNESCO 2011). Africa’s human capital foundations are too weak to sustain dynamic economic growth and shared prosperity and we cannot afford our young adults loosing out on education.

Some groups are at a disadvantaged position

There is deep inequality in access to education in Africa. The poor, the women, ethnic minorities, rural children and other marginalized groups suffer from discrimination and disadvantage that create social fault-lines running through Africa’s education systems. Of all of these, gender remains the most endemic as despite the recent progress, girls still represent a disproportionate share of out of school dropouts. Not much of the disparities is in isolation as disadvantages linked to gender, wealth, and location reinforce each other. Accelerated progress towards universal access to education need to have increased attention to those marginalized – including although not limited to, children living in urban slums like in the Kibera (Nairobi), remote rural areas like, disadvantaged ethnic groups, and the disabled.

Early years the most crucial

Research has shown that disparities at later years of school (like in high school and college) are explained predominantly by what happens at an early age of the child and in early upbringing and schooling. Efforts to transform the education system must start long before a child joins school and well before they have dropped out.

On early upbringing, good health and nutrition are critical. Learning outcomes are strongly related to nutrition status of the child in their early age. This may well be the case because rich kids eat well and go to good schools so it may just be a relationship without causation but I would not take my chances with this. African countries need to expand early childhood care under and integrated health and education framework that breaks the link between hunger, poverty, and parental illiteracy on one side and education disadvantage on the other.

Also, second chance programs targeting youth, and young adults who missed out on education in their early years should be expanded. Africa did this quite well soon after independence. Education institutions should also work with the private sector in aligning education with employment opportunities because this is the ultimate promise of education – employment.

A lot has been done to improve access and quality of education in African countries but more can still be done especially on early upbringing and on youth and young adults schooling. Africa will have the largest working age population by 2020 and education is key at ensuring that these numbers increase opportunities and are not a burden. I would actually go so far as arguing that African countries should borrow to spend on education need be. Although the debt burdens are already quite high for most countries, an illiterate society today, is a dependent society tomorrow while a properly educated society today, can be relied upon tomorrow. Only education can increase the taxable base (the percent of the population that can be taxed), in the future.

The greatest wealth bestowed to any nation is not gold, or diamond, it is indeed its people.

“Until the lion has his own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story” – Chinua Achebe

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Photograph by SchoolBagsForKids