Africa’s 3 top education priorities for the next decade

By Birger Fredriksen, a senior advisor at the Results for Development Institute and former director for human development for Africa at the World Bank. 

How can countries seize the opportunities and minimize the risks posed by the rapid change that is reshaping societies and economies worldwide? The answer will increasingly depend on their ability to provide their people with the skills they need to respond to such change. The challenge of building the necessary education systems is particularly daunting for low-income Sub-Saharan African countries. What should be their top priorities over the next decade to achieve this?

Obviously, Africa must develop secondary and higher education to produce the skills needed to compete in the global knowledge-based economy. But this has to be coupled with continued high priority to achieving good quality basic education for all. This is the foundation for post-basic education, shared economic growth and increased productivity of those engaged in the farming and non-farming informal sectors – the overwhelming majority of Africa’s labour force (around 90%).

Therefore, governments must make budget trade-offs in favour of population groups who missed out on basic education, by giving high priority to the following areas over the next decade:

1.         Invest in ALL young children: The best long-term investment most African countries can make is early childhood care and education. Not only do Africa’s child health and education indicators lag behind those of other developing regions, the gap is increasing:

  • Child mortality: In 2010, Sub-Saharan Africa’s under-5 mortality rate (121 per 1,000) was double that of South Asia and six times that of East Asia and Latin America. In 2010, Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 49% of the children worldwide dying before the age of 5, up from 19% in 1970.
  • Malnutrition: Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where the number of children who are stunted (short for their age) increased between 1990 and 2010 (from 38 to 55 million).
  • Pre-primary education: In 2010, Sub-Saharan Africa’s gross enrolment ratio was 17% against 48% in South Asia, 57% in East Asia and 70% in Latin America.

Malnutrition and a lack of pre-school education seriously undermine children’s life chances, including their education. Many of these impacts are irreversible. Save the Children has called malnutrition a “life sentence for children”.

2.         Address the legacy of not attaining universal primary education and adult literacy. Four factors led to this legacy: low enrolment during the colonial era, the post-1980 economic crisis, high droput before grade 5 and the failure of literacy programmes.

African countries must rapidly increase the provision of second-chance programmes for those who did not enter or complete primary education; and interventions to improve the quality of learning and reduce dropout. If not, at least a quarter of those of prime working age over the next three to four decades could be illiterate and, given the higher birth rates for women with little or no education, more than one-third of children born in at least the 2020s and 2030s may be born to illiterate mothers.

3.         Extend the duration of basic education: In 2010, Sub-Saharan Africa’s gross enrolment ratio for lower secondary education (47%) was well below that of South Asia (75%), East Asia (90%) and Latin America (102%). Africa needs urgently to expand secondary education, both to respond to rising social demand resulting from the progress towards universal primary education and to develop the skills needed by the economy. As shown by East Asian countries, secondary education plays a key role in increasing workers’ productivity.

To address their needs for basic skills beyond primary education, low-income African countries should merge primary and lower secondary education to create a new eight- to nine-year basic education cycle.

As well as helping to meet labour force needs, this would cost less than rapidly universalizing lower secondary education, which would be prohibitively expensive for many countries. A more financially sustainable strategy would be to: (i) create a longer basic education cycle by adding classrooms and teachers (who can teach several subjects) to primary schools, and (ii) streamline the curriculum of the new cycle to limit the number of core subjects and make the content more relevant to pupils who will not proceed to the upper secondary cycle.

This approach would also be more equitable because it would facilitate the provision to all of some basic skills beyond primary education and because the content would be better adapted to the needs of those entering the labour market.


Focusing on these three areas over the next decade would help African countries to unleash their full human potential and thereby play a global role more commensurate with Africa’s enormous size, growing share of the world’s population, young labour force, and richness in natural resources and diversity.

Donors should also give higher priority to these areas. Targeting aid to these areas would reap high returns, reduce poverty and create less aid dependency than in many other areas, because success would reduce the future need for donor support. It would also help reduce the risk of continued neglect in domestic funding of children and youth who miss out on primary education.

Photo: Children come from all over Ethiopia to attend Menelik School in Addis Ababa. (Petterik Wiggers/Panos)



  1. Good article, but one quick question – that 102% figure for Latin America (in the third section). Typo, creative statistics, or a genuine ratio that I don’t quite understand (some people doing secondary education without having done primary?).

    1. Thanks for your comment. The gross enrolment ratio gives enrolment in a level of education as a percentage of the population of the official age group for that level. The gross enrollment ratio can be greater than 100% as a result of grade repetition and entry at ages younger or older than the typical age at that grade level.

    2. Gross Enrollment Ratios often exceed 100% for countries that have close to universal coverage because the numerator include pupils who are outside the official age-range for that level, e.g., because they repeat grades.

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