Education is on the cusp of a global shift. September’s Transforming Education Summit at the United Nations in New York brought together representatives from more than 130 countries to discuss how to respond to the worldwide learning crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unless that response truly is transformative, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for Education (SDG4), which aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030, will remain out of reach.
Against this background, Africa is on the cusp of an education transformation of its own. Officials, civil-society organizers, and educators from across the continent convened last month in Mauritius for the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) Triennale, which focused on addressing the pandemic’s devastating effects on millions of schoolchildren and university students.
The greatest challenge currently facing schools in Africa is enabling students to develop a capacity for learning. There is a general consensus that acquiring numeracy and literacy skills in early childhood is critical to improving learning outcomes and reducing socioeconomic inequalities.
But while giving every child the opportunity to succeed has become something of a mantra among government officials and education professionals, we must acknowledge that Africa is far from achieving this goal. Born to learn, a series of studies published by the Global Education Monitoring Report, the ADEA, and the African Union, highlights the difficulties facing African educators.
Children in Africa are seven times less likely to have rudimentary reading skills and five times less likely to learn basic mathematics than students in the rest of the world. Moreover, the ability of local education systems to teach even basic literacy skills has declined in some 40% of African countries over the last 30 years. In Sierra Leone, violent conflicts and other challenges have held back our education system.
While we have made up for lost time – increasing primary school completion rates and achieving gender parity, for example – we have not been able to ensure that every child who finishes school has acquired the necessary skills. But we are determined to do better. To this end, we have increased education spending, waived all tuition costs, provided students with school meals and updated learning materials, and raised teacher salaries by 30%.
We have also redesigned school curricula according to the five Cs: comprehension, critical thinking, computational learning, creativity, and civics. These reforms reflect our child-centered approach to teaching and learning, which aims to enhance access, boost school safety, and increase investment in infrastructure. Our radical inclusion policy has improved learning outcomes at all levels and improved final-exam scores.
But there is still much work to be done. To promote foundational education for all learners, we must foster cooperation and information-sharing among African countries. In that spirit, the Born to learn report features detailed policy recommendations and clear examples of programs that have improved teaching efficiency and quality across the continent.
In Sierra Leone, for example, we have introduced national assessment and feedback mechanisms to create an integrated approach that informs our curricula, shapes teachers’ pedagogy, and enables us to evaluate students’ progress more effectively.
These recommendations and experiences will likely serve as the basis for the African Union’s newly-established Leveraging Education Analysis for Results Network (LEARN), which seeks to help African countries introduce educational reforms and monitor their effectiveness. Providing teachers with financial incentives is essential to any successful educational reform, which is why Sierra Leone has increased teacher salaries despite the financial constraints created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another way to promote accountability is to define a clear and communicable vision for the future of education. But children cannot learn on an empty stomach. Families below the poverty line are more likely to keep their children in school if food is provided for them. That is why increasing access to free, nutritious school meals is crucial to improving foundational learning outcomes.
While African governments have made significant efforts to reform their education systems, we must avoid overstating our accomplishments. Multilateral discussions have provided local leaders with important frameworks, but educational disparities cannot be reduced overnight. Improving education is central to sustainable national development. It is also the most effective tool for dismantling the cycles of intergenerational poverty that have crippled Africa’s economies.
While the past few years have disrupted our education systems, they have also presented us with a unique opportunity to provide an equitable, high-quality educational environment to all learners. To take advantage of this opportunity will require close cooperation with multilateral efforts, such as UNESCO’s recently launched campaign to promote literacy and numeracy in Africa.
Julius Maada Bio is President of Sierra Leone.