A new report by Mastercard Foundation, ‘Secondary Education in Africa: Preparing Youth for the Future of Work’, highlights the challenges facing the secondary education sector in Africa and suggests the best methods of improving both enrolment levels and standards. Neil Ford summarises the report.
Huge strides have been made in improving access to primary education in recent years but an incredible 65m young people of secondary school age are currently not in school in Sub-Saharan Africa, says the report.
Improving this situation will improve the living standards of the young people concerned and boost wider economic development in the region.
There has been great success in increasing primary school enrolment and completion rates across Sub-Saharan Africa, with 98% of children enrolling at some stage, but further progress can be made here too.
Some children are still left out, systems need to be expanded to cope with rapid population increase and teaching standards can be improved. This will be challenging at a time when government finances are under particular pressure.
As the report sets out, although the vast majority of children do enrol in primary school, just 9% make it to tertiary education and only 6% graduate. Many have to leave the education system to work to support their families, while the education of others is affected by conflict or the fallout of climate change.
Yet improving the economic fortunes of African economies will require far better educational attainment if young African people are to be prepared for the employment opportunities of the future and to be better informed citizens. It is also central to achieving the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
Making young Africans more adaptable and resilient will help improve their life chances in both the formal and informal sectors. The benefits of secondary education are perhaps even greater for those moving into the latter by helping them to more easily access technology and finance. Greater access to secondary education can also help to empower girls, not only economically but also socially.
Equipping the region’s young people with relevant skills will also become increasingly important from an international perspective because Africa will account for such a huge proportion of global population growth over the coming decades.
There will be more young people on the continent in 2075 than in China and India combined at a time when technology will change the world of work out of all recognition. It is therefore vital that young Africans gain the skills and knowledge that will make them attractive to employers and equip them to start their own businesses.
Teaching the skills needed
It is vital that education is inclusive, high quality and relevant to the skills that will be needed over the next couple of decades. If secondary education structures are to be greatly expanded, this would be an ideal time to design secondary education systems with those skills in mind.
Apart from foundational literacy and numeracy skills, young people need to be equipped specifically for life in the 21st century, including digital skills knowledge in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – as well as being encouraged to develop critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.
Developing those skills will have positive effects for society in general, as the skills needed for work and those required for learning, personal empowerment and active citizenship are increasingly converging.
Many African governments have already reformed their secondary school curricula to align them more closely with their plans for national development. Apart from STEM subjects, world languages, environmental sustainability and vocational training have all become more important.
At the same time, however, the report emphasises that it is easy to overload the curriculum. Space must be left for extracurricular activities and teacher training.
Evidence from OECD countries shows that extracurricular activities play a particularly important role in improving social and academic outcomes for marginalised young people. It also recommends that assessments should test for the application of rather than acquisition of knowledge.
More teachers needed
Both the number and skill levels of secondary teachers must improve to meet the challenge. Due to the rapid expansion of education systems, many teachers lack necessary qualifications, while 10.8m more secondary school teachers will be needed by 2030 to meet demand on the continent.
Many African education systems struggle to attract well-qualified candidates into a profession that has declined in status and relative pay in recent years, the report notes. By contrast, the world’s best education systems have succeeded in making teaching a high-status profession that attracts students with strong academic backgrounds and the motivation to teach and to improve their professional standards.
A significant transformation in teacher recruitment and education is therefore needed, alongside strong support for existing teachers, and effective school leadership.
The report recommends making it easier for high-performing teachers to gain promotion and leadership roles that allow them to mentor junior colleagues. It also advises prioritising digital skills development for all teaching staff. All this should support improved learning outcomes and make schools more efficient, including by reducing grade repetition.
Education systems have to be made more flexible to allow pupils to move between Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and general secondary education, including through flexible admission procedures, credit accumulation and transfers.
At present, TVET is often considered a ‘dead-end choice’ by some parents – an option for those perceived to have failed in general education.
Children forced to leave the education system should be given means of securing out-of-school education or given options to return to formal education at a later date.
National qualifications frameworks can also provide more recognition of the technical skills of informal sector workers, which can boost their job opportunities, as well as their ability to undertake further education and training.
Achieving lasting improvements will be a long-term process requiring sustained commitment and investment but the experience of Sierra Leone and Senegal reveals comprehensive reforms that are already bearing fruit in the form of improved attendance, completion and equity.
However, the Mastercard Foundation concedes that sustained improvements in learning outcomes are difficult to achieve because of the number of ingredients needed to achieve it:
- Vision and political will at the highest levels as demonstrated by clear policies and provision of the required resources;
- Widespread support for reforms;
- Focused attention on equity gaps;
- Partnerships with the private sector, civil society and international institutions;
- The use of data in decision-making;
- Setting clear roles and responsibilities, while holding decision-makers accountable for outcomes.
Governments have a big role to play, particularly as some reforms will be less politically popular than others and those dynamics will play out differently in different countries according to local factors.
It will be particularly difficult to sustain educational reforms as political power changes hands, rather than altering course with every change in the political wind or donor fashion.
The report recommends active engagement from all stakeholders who have an influence on whether reforms take root or not, such as teachers’ unions, from the design and implementation of reforms onwards.
Experimentation and innovation will be increasingly required to reinvent and transform secondary education because of the fast pace of social and economic change. This can be achieved by improving the ability of governments to directly pilot, evaluate and scale innovations.
Alternatively, governments can create a more conducive environment for innovation, including by creating a culture of openness and space to fail; innovation hubs within or outside of Ministries of Education; and partnering with non-state innovators.
The Education Commission is a global initiative set up to encourage progress on Sustainable Development Goal 4 – ensuring inclusive and quality education and promoting lifelong learning for all. It estimates that investment of $175bn a year, or 4.5% of GDP, is needed between now and 2050 for Sub-Saharan Africa to approach universal enrolment in secondary education. This contrasts with the $25bn, or 2% of GDP, spent on secondary education in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2015.
Finding the required investment will be difficult but the report suggests that some could be found through efficiencies and more from strategic use of official development assistance. However, it emphasises that investment in secondary education must not be made at the expense of primary education.
Some governments have changed their funding structures to provide fee-free lower secondary education but the report concludes that these reforms have often not benefitted the poorest children because many of them often do not complete primary education.
Even if tuition is free, many cannot attend because of associated costs, such as uniforms, textbooks and transport. Need-based scholarships and cash transfers for the poorest can remove the barriers to secondary education, the report notes.
Modelling by the Education Commission shows that if all Sub-Saharan countries improved at the rate of the continent’s top 25% of performers, and invested particularly in expanding access to the most marginalised, 100m more students could access and complete secondary education by 2050.
This would require reforms to be implemented, spending increased and more support given to marginalised students but change is possible.