Africa faces a “severe learning crisis” that undermines economic growth and the well-being of its citizens, according to a new World Bank study. The region has made considerable progress in boosting primary and lower secondary school enrollment, but some 50 million children remain out of school, and most of those who attend school are not acquiring the basic skills necessary for success later in life.
Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa argues that learning levels across the region are alarmingly low. Among second grade students assessed on numeracy tests in several Sub-Saharan African countries, three-quarters could not count beyond 80 and 40 percent could not do a one-digit addition problem. In reading, between 50 and 80 percent of children in second grade could not answer a single question based on a short passage they had read, and a large proportion could not read even a single word.
Progress in the region has been mixed and some countries, including South Africa and Zimbabwe, have universalized access to basic education (primary and lower secondary). Other countries, including Central African Republic, Liberia and Chad, which have been affected by conflict and political turmoil, are lagging behind even in primary school access. In most countries, however, despite rapid advances, richer children, urban children and boys have the highest access to lower secondary education.
“Providing a high-quality basic education for children across the region is an economic necessity, as well as a moral imperative,” said Jaime Saavedra, the World Bank’s Senior Director for Education. “This report provides a sobering look at Africa’s learning crisis and the region’s potential to solve it. Young Africans can transform the region and create lasting economic change, but they need to be equipped with the skills and human capital to do so.”
The study lays out concrete steps in four priority areas: providing universal basic education with a focus on equitable access, quality and retention; ensuring effective management and support of teachers; increasing financing for quality education; and boosting institutional capacity.
Specifically, the report urges countries to focus on student progression and the “traffic jam” in early grades, where children are stuck for many years with little learning, and are often taught in a language they don’t fully understand. Ensuring regular student attendance, reducing repetition and class size, and implementing a language of instruction policy are factors critical to ensuring foundational learning. The study also calls for the elimination of the high-stakes examinations between primary and lower secondary school to ensure student progression.
The study highlights the need for better teacher support, particularly around issues of recruitment, preparation, deployment, supervision, and support at the school level. Policies need to address high rates of absenteeism and lack of teacher knowledge and skill, with a focus on better and more effective teacher preparation programs, on-the-job support, and incentives.
According to the study, in 2014, African governments spent an estimated US$204 per student for primary education—less than half of the amount spent in South Asia, the region with the next lowest level of spending. But the authors caution that more spending needs to be complemented by smarter and more strategic spending on learning materials, infrastructure, and teacher training.
“Countries in Africa can address this learning crisis while also improving access and completion,” said Sajitha Bashir, World Bank Education Manager and co-author of the report along with Marlaine Lockheed, Elizabeth Ninan, and Jee-Peng Tan. “Our research draws on lessons from the region and for the region about what works. Countries need to design policies that fit their local context and educational needs, while building their capacity to implement dynamic programs that are open to improvement and feedback.”
The study complements the World Bank’s recent World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, which was released in September 2017 and argued that without learning, education will fail to deliver on its promise to eliminate extreme poverty and create shared opportunity and prosperity for all.