Africa tackles inequalities in education

At the dawn of independence, incoming African leaders were quick to prioritise education on their development agendas.

Attaining universal primary education, they maintained, would help post-independence Africa lift itself out of abject poverty.

As governments began to build schools and post teachers even to the farthest corners of the continent, with help from religious organisations and other partners, children began to fill the classrooms and basic education was under way.

Africa’s current primary school enrolment rate is above 80{ce26f346cd59949e2c0f2d00ffd4e33d79c93a92036a118111a0d166462d4b89} on average, with the continent recording some of the biggest increases in elementary school enrolment globally in the last few decades, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

More children in Africa are going to school than ever before.

Yet despite the successes in primary school enrolment, inequalities and inefficiencies remain in this critical sector.

According to the African Union (AU), the recent expansion in enrolments “masks huge disparities and system dysfunctionalities and inefficiencies” in education subsectors such as pre-primary, technical, vocational and informal education, which are severely underdeveloped.

It is widely accepted that most of Africa’s education and training programs suffer from low-quality teaching and learning, as well as inequalities and exclusion at all levels.

Even with a substantial increase in the number of children with access to basic education, a large number still remain out of school.

Ayodele Odusola, the lead editor of the report and UNDP’s chief economist, makes the following point: “Quality education is key to social mobility and can thus help reduce poverty, although it may not necessarily reduce(income) inequality.”

To address education inequality, he says, governments must invest heavily in child and youth development through appropriate education and health policies and programmes.

Higher-quality education, he says, improves the distribution of skilled workers, and state authorities can use this increased supply to build a fairer society in which all people, rich or poor, have equal opportunities. As it is now, only the elites benefit from quality education.

“Wealthy leaders in Africa send their children to study in the best universities abroad, such as Harvard. After studies, they come back to rule their countries, while those from poor families who went to public schools would be lucky to get a job even in the public sector,” notes Mr. Odusola.

Another challenge facing policy makers and educators is low secondary and tertiary enrolment.

Angela Lusigi, one of the authors of the UNDP report, says that while Africa has made significant advances in closing the gap in primary-level enrolments, both secondary and tertiary enrolments lag behind. Only four out of every 100 children in Africa is expected to enter a graduate and postgraduate institution, compared to 36 out of 100 in Latin America and 14 out of 100 in South and West Asia.

“In fact, only 30 to 50{ce26f346cd59949e2c0f2d00ffd4e33d79c93a92036a118111a0d166462d4b89} of secondary-school-aged children are attending school, while only 7 to 23{ce26f346cd59949e2c0f2d00ffd4e33d79c93a92036a118111a0d166462d4b89} of tertiary-school-aged youth are enrolled.

This varies by sub region, with the lowest levels being in Central and Eastern Africa and the highest enrolment levels in Southern and North Africa,” Ms Lusigi, who is also the strategic advisor for UNDP Africa, told Africa Renewal.

According to Ms. Lusigi, many factors account for the low transition from primary to secondary and tertiary education. The first is limited household incomes, which limit children’s access to education. A lack of government investment to create equal access to education also plays a part.

“The big push that led to much higher primary enrolment in Africa was subsidized schooling financed by both public resources and development assistance,” she said. “This has not yet transitioned to providing free access to secondary- and tertiary-level education.”

Africa Renewal /Zipporah Musau

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