Missing from school: the education challenge in sub-Saharan Africa

Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, and Aaron Benavot, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report

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With the Eurozone in turmoil and sluggish economic growth in the US and elsewhere, investors may well see sub-Saharan Africa – still one of the fastest growing regional economies on earth – as the new frontier. While the region’s economic growth has slowed, falling from 4.5% in 2014 to 3% in 2015, it continues to outpace growth in many of the world’s most advanced economies. However, as the World Bank has noted, the region faces major economic headwinds, from disparities and poverty to falling commodity prices.

Today, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) adds another headwind to the list: serious challenges in the region’s education. If African economies are to become more competitive, they must be able to draw on a schooled and skilled population. Indeed, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognise that the completion of secondary schooling is a minimum to be able to compete in an increasingly globalised economy.

According to new data from the UIS, however, at least half of all those aged 15 to 17 in sub-Saharan Africa are not in school – the highest proportion for any region worldwide. In other words, half of those who should, by now, be fine-tuning the skills they need for the job market, or to progress to tertiary education – to have a lasting impact on their countries’ national development – are not even in the classroom.

It’s not feasible that all of these kids suddenly dropped out of school at the age of 15: the problems probably began much earlier in their lives. As the Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has said: one reason so many teenagers are out of secondary school worldwide is because they never went to primary school in the first place. In total, more than 93 million children of primary and secondary school age are out of school across the region, and at least 15 million of them will never set foot in a classroom.

The data, released in a new paper from the UIS and the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, show that in Nigeria alone, 8.7 million children who should be in primary school are simply not there.  In Ethiopia it’s 2.1 million. These are vast numbers that are hard to grasp, but each one represents a massive loss of potential.

The paper confirms that failures to prioritise primary enrolment leave millions of teenagers out of school later on. The out-of-school rate in sub-Saharan Africa is 21% for children of primary school age (about 6-11 years), 34% for youth of lower secondary school age (12-14 years) and 58% for youth of upper secondary school age (15-17 years), according to UIS data.

A young girl poses for a photograph in the Shabelle IDP settlement in Garowe, Somalia Tuesday, July 1, 2014. (Kate Holt/ UNICEF Photo/)

A closer look at who is out of school and why reveals that girls are at a major disadvantage. Across the region, nine million girls between the ages of about 6 and 11 will never go to school at all, compared to six million boys. Their disadvantage starts early: 23% of girls are out of school compared to 19% of boys are out of primary school. By the time they become adolescents, the exclusion rate for girls is 36% compared to 32% for boys, according to UIS data.

We see that conflict continues to rob millions of their right to education. Across the region, about one-third of all those out of school live in areas plagued by conflict. We also see the severe impact of poverty: only 65 of the poorest children for every 100 of the richest go to primary school in sub-Saharan Africa, according to GEM Report analysis. Once again, girls face the most extreme barriers, with fewer than seven of the poorest girls attending at the upper secondary level for every ten of the poorest boys.

The data confirm that, in global terms, sub-Saharan Africa has to be at the top of the list for investment in education. The success – or not – of policies behind this data show us where countries in the regions should be emphasizing their efforts.

We know, for instance, that high-stakes exams at the end of primary and lower secondary education can prevent or discourage students from making the transition to the next level. In Tanzania, for example, less than half of children passed the primary school leaving exam in 2010: only 41% of those who reached the end of primary school went on to secondary. Meanwhile, The Gambia abolished exams at the end of primary school and saw enrolment in lower secondary increase from 44% to 63%.

We also know that making education compulsory for at least nine years can encourage children to go to school. Yet for many countries in the region, education is compulsory for less than six years, as in the case of Angola, Benin, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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Kate Holt/GEM Report Sierra Leone

Child labour is also competing with children’s education, making it crucial for countries to ratify and enforce minimum age conventions on child labour. In Togo, for example, 40% of those adolescents between the ages of 12 to 14 years are combining work and school, with the proportion rising to over 50% for those the same age in Cameroon.

The challenges are enormous. Right now, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are struggling to meet the educational needs of those children and youth who are relatively easy to reach. This raises concerns about how the region will ensure that the most disadvantaged can complete secondary education. The task seems daunting but it is essential. There needs to be a far sharper focus on the wider challenges facing the children and teenagers who are missing out across the region – the poorest, the girls, those caught up in conflict. It is not enough to just build more classrooms or hire more teachers. Only by reaching out to them, and by drawing them into the classroom, can the region hope to fulfil its enormous potential.



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