The Wake-up Call

Education in Africa has recently caught the world’s attention but for the wrong reason – the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls in Chibok. Many African citizens, including myself, strongly condemn this despicable act, and we urge all parties to put their differences aside and take immediate actions to bring the girls safely back to their parents and their communities.

To those using education as a bargaining tool for political ends, we say: African girls’ education is not negotiable. It is a basic human right that all of us should stand united to uphold and defend tenaciously against its detractors.

Yet, with this single act, it seems that the wind of positive change blowing through the African continent has been dealt another blow. At a time when Africa is undergoing profound socio-economic changes, its education efforts have come under serious attack.

How can we realize the dream of a strong and prosperous Africa if we don’t educate our people, if we keep denying them of the very opportunity to open their eyes and minds to the world and the infinite possibilities within? Are we deliberately sabotaging ourselves and opening our doors once again to a new wave of domination by external powers? When will we ever learn from the lessons of the past?

Unfortunately, Africa’s education woes do not end here.

Equally as distressing as the countless disruptive events that are undermining the continent’s efforts is the abysmal state of education, as mentioned in my post A Place to Kill Time. However, such issue of utmost importance never makes the news headlines nor garners so much attention from the world.

Yet, as we seek answers to the questions that haunt our minds – as in the case of the kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls –  the widespread poverty and ignorance, and the scarcity of opportunities that is breeding a sense of frustration and despair especially among the African youth, are cited as the obvious culprits. And if we are willing to delve deeper, we can find possible explanations for these social ills further upstream in the total collapse of Africa’s education systems.

My argument here is that education is the key ingredient that is still missing from Africa’s development formula.

What makes education so powerful – and yet so threatening to those opposing it – is its tremendous ability to ignite and drive change and in so doing, to radically transform people’s lives, societies and economies within a short period of time. So far, this has not been the case in many African countries, where education has yet to become a change agent.

When African countries ratified the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in September 2000, they committed, among others, to the goal of ensuring universal basic education for all. Since then, they have registered some progress, particularly in improving access to primary level education to the larger sections of their populations.

But recent evidence on the ground seems to tell another story – a story of stalled progress, of reversed gains and of missed opportunities.

In a survey conducted by the Brookings Institute (Africa’s Education Crisis: In School But Not Learning) in 2012, the findings exposed the shocking truth about the extent and depth of the education crisis in Africa.

The Institute estimated that ‘out of the 128 million school-aged children, 61 million primary school children [half of them] will reach adolescence without the basic skills needed to lead successful and productive lives’. It also questioned the value added of children’s schooling, when among those attending school ‘37 million African children learn so little while they are in school that they will not be much better off than those kids who never attend school’.

Its analysis of African schoolchildren’s performances further revealed that ‘scores in national assessments in some of the countries for children in primary schools are so low calling into question the value-added of their schooling’ while ‘more than half of the students in grade 4 and 5 in countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zambia are below the minimum learning bar’.

If we make the parallel with Chinese schoolchildren’s performances in international assessments, the result is nothing short of astounding.

Since 2009, China consistently scored highest in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is organized every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to test the literacy, numeracy and science skills of 15 year-old schoolchildren from around the world.

In the latest  PISA results (PISA 2012 Results: Which Country Does Best At Reading, Maths and Science?), Shanghai ranked Number 1 for the second time in a row in all three categories, with Hong Kong and Macau following close behind.  Other Asian countries also topped the list, surpassing many European and North American countries.

These facts speak for themselves. They are the wake-up call that we should heed and act upon, if we wish to spare our continent from yet another lost generation in the making.

But where did we go wrong?

After a commendable start, African countries’ education efforts lost momentum, as evidenced by the recent rise in the number of school drop-outs and the poor performances of African schoolchildren.

With the deadline of the MDGs fast approaching (end of 2015), Africa looks thus set to miss its education target. Additionally, in their race to achieve the goal on education, the countries’ education roll-out focused narrowly on getting numbers right, such as number of schools built, enrollment rates, number of girls enrolled, among others.

But, in the midst of it all, they lost one crucial quality of education, which is the learning aspect.

Sadly enough, many schools across Africa offer little or no learning value to schoolchildren. So what is the purpose of sending our children to school if the education process is totally stripped of its real value, the value of learning?

The stroke of brush that will change this gloomy picture lies in our willingness to take a hard look at our failings in educating our children, and a hard stance to lift our continent out of this desperate situation. There are ways out of this vicious cycle that continues to hold Africa in shackles. But they cannot be achieved by just wishing for them to come about; it takes strong commitment and determination, and concrete and sweeping actions from all sides.

My suggestion of a way out is for Africa to draw lessons from its mistakes and learn from the experiences of countries such as China.

In my view, one of the major factors that led to the demise of Africa’s education is the disengagement of African parents and societies from children’s education. Over the years, what used to be a collective and participative effort, African children’s education became the responsibility of a few whilst education opportunities became confined to schools and learning institutions.

If we look at China’s education success story, it would not have been possible if it weren’t for the full commitment and participation of all the members of the Chinese society – the parents, the teachers, the policy makers, and the society at large. Therefore, the important task of educating our children falls on each one of us, not just the parents or the teachers or the policy makers. We all need to re-engage in our children’s education and act responsibly towards them and their future.

The second weakness relates to the fact that the African leadership has used (or misused) education as an image tool in its relations with the continent’s external partners. It is more intent on satisfying its partners’ requirements rather than discharging its responsibility of providing adequate education to African children, thereby sacrificing the quality of their education. Although improving access to education is important, we should look beyond numbers to ensure that we are offering real learning value and experiences to our children.

Our third failing is in our attitude towards investment in education. China and other Asian countries have invested massively in the education of their children, and now they are reaping the substantial socio-economic benefits. The education of our children is paramount and as such, investment in their education should not be considered as a cost, but rather as a wise and highly rewarding investment.

Lastly, countries such as China were able to make huge leaps in educating their big-sized population and catching up with the Western world by focusing on basic literacy, numeracy and science skills. We need to develop our children’s skills in these areas and to close the huge learning gap early on at the primary school level. Otherwise, it will be impossible for African children to catch up, let alone compete with the rest of the world.

More importantly, we need to help our children rediscover the art of learning and nurture a whole range of skills they need in order to build the solid foundations for their future lives (a topic I will discuss in my next blog post).

The education crisis is one of the biggest social crises that have hit African countries with devastating consequences and far-reaching implications.

The African leadership and its citizens, kin on curbing pressing social issues, especially the soaring youth unemployment, the mass migration of African citizens to other shores, the rise in dangerous trends such as extremism, terrorism, and other criminal activities, should first tackle the education crisis as it is at the core of these issues.

With Africa’s fate hanging in balance, the need to resolve the education challenge and to re-instill a sense of hope and purpose into the African youth that has lost its bearings has never been more urgent.

Unless we make the conscious choice to equip our children – our girls and boys – with the adequate knowledge and skills set, Africa will not be in a position to claim neither its present, the transformation underway on the continent, nor its future.

(28 May 2014)


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