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Writing in the FT, Mary Goretti Nakabugo, the executive director of Uwezo, a leading education NGO, is startling honest about the challenges facing young Africans.
Her article references a recent report by the World Bank, which revealed that 87% of 10-year-olds in Sub-Saharan Africa are unable to understand even the simplest of texts or passages.
In Nakabugo’s eyes, children who fail to learn the basics ‘are condemned to a life of poverty and scarcity, and their countries face a cycle of limited economic, health and social growth’ – in essence, low quality schooling leads to low quality lives.
To break this cycle, African governments must realise that they can’t act alone and should therefore allow the continent’s private sector and philanthropic actors to assist them in getting kids off to a good start.
While Africa’s education system may be broken, this triple-pronged approach stands a good chance of fixing it.
The Zambian approach
To start with, national governments can learn a lot from Zambia’s successful overhauling of its primary schools.
In 2016, the country’s education ministry launched its new ‘Catch-up’ programme, based on the internationally respected Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach.
Under TaRL, for one hour every day over two terms, children were grouped on performance instead of age or school grade, allowing them to learn and improve at their own pace.
In just one year, the share of children reading with ‘basic proficiency’, such as being able to understand a paragraph or short story, jumped from 34% to 52%.
Improved proficiency in mathematics, judged as the ability to complete two-digit subtractions, was just as impressive, up to 50% from 32%.
The ‘Catch-up’ programme is clear evidence that simple, and completely inexpensive, reforms can have a dramatic impact on academic performance.
The private sector’s role
While Zambia’s efforts are impressive, members of the African business community have highlighted that schools need to inculcate vocational skills, alongside basic proficiencies.
Bineta Sy, the Managing Director of MSC Senegal, a network provider, reports that to help bridge this gap, private sector initiatives have begun to prioritise ‘practical over theoretical education’.
Leading the charge, MSC Senegal started its own academy to provide youngsters with experience of the telecoms sector and a basic grounding in digital skills.
The company also see outreach as pivotal to solving Senegal’s educational challenges and their efforts have focused on gender equality and local community development.
Conscious of the importance of an integrated approach, Bineta Sy has called for companies like hers to speak with a ‘united voice’ when sharing their insights with government policymakers.
Private sector support is essential but African governments can just as easily take advantage of the network of charitable organisations on the continent.
Mirco Martins, the Angolan entrepreneur and founder of Mavah SGPS, has argued that philanthropic actors can aid the public sector in ensuring that ‘Africans are granted the educational opportunities that will help them, and in turn, help their countries’.
Martins followed his own advice by the starting the Kuculá Foundation, an organisation which helps children from less fortunate backgrounds get a good education, while providing the mentoring they need to keep them in the classroom.
Despite their clear societal benefit, private sector initiatives will always operate with an element of self-interest, whereas charities can seek out the kids who are doing badly, set out a plan for their development, and provide them with ongoing pastoral care.
The opportunity equaliser
Ramathan Ggoobi, the noted Ugandan economist and professor at Makerere Business School, recently described education as ‘the most effective opportunity equaliser’ and he’s right.
UNESCO estimate that every year of schooling raises future earnings by approximately 10% for men and lifts them by nearly 20% for women.
Not only does education promote equality but increasing literacy rates have a demonstrable effect on political and civic engagement – two essential ingredients for Africa’s continued socio-economic progress.
In sum, a more prosperous future is in reach for Africa if policymakers can work closely with the private and charitable sectors in ensuring that youngsters have the skills, the mentorship, and the care that they need to thrive.
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