By Neema Lugangira MP, member of the National Assembly of Tanzania and regional representative for Africa, International Parliamentary Network for Education & Harriett Baldwin MP, member of the UK Parliament and Global Co-Chair, International Parliamentary Network for Education
In 1970 during the Apollo 13 spaceflight a warning light started to flash on the spacecraft’s dashboard, which was quickly followed by a loud bang as the entire spacecraft shook. Astronaut Jack Swigert radioed NASA Mission Control with the words “Houston we have a problem!”
Since then the phrase has become a popular way of conveying, with a sense of ironic understatement, the unforeseen emergence of a big, mission critical issue.
Whilst the warning lights have been flashing for some time, there’s a growing recognition that judged by the most basic of measures – access to primary school and the acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy – educational progress is in big trouble.
Echoing the words of Apollo 13’s astronauts to mission control, our message to colleagues in parliaments across the world is, we have a problem!
Education’s big problem
If we count the number of children who still don’t have access to school and the ones who are in school but aren’t learning to read, the World Bank estimates that 70 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school.
In the world’s poorest countries, the level is as high as 90 percent. Such extreme levels of illiteracy are an early warning sign that all global educational goals and other related sustainable development goals are in jeopardy.
Growing recognition of the problem across Africa
Last week at a pan-Africa meeting of education policy makers, ADEA, the Global Education Monitoring Report and the Africa Union published the first Report in a series that shines the spotlight on challenges and solutions for foundational learning in Africa.
The Spotlight reports are the result of work with Ministers in five focus countries: DRC, Senegal, Ghana, Rwanda and Mozambique. The involvement of the Ministers of Education in these countries reflects a welcome recognition of the challenge that low learning levels represents.
In summary the challenge has two principal dimensions.
Primary school enrolment and completion
More than twenty years after the world promised via the Millennium Development Goals to ensure every child would complete a full course of primary education, one in five children of primary school age in Africa remain out of school.
One in three African children do not complete primary school on time and one in four never complete it.
We clearly need to face up to the fact that the promise of primary school access and completion is unfinished business and commit to finishing it.
However, even if we ensure every child enrolls in and even completes primary school, which we must, access to school won’t solve the problem on its own.
Unfortunately, many countries don’t have policies and practices in place to collect data on student learning. In fact, there is no data on the learning levels of two-thirds of African children. And, where it does exist, it clearly shows that learning levels are very low.
Only one in five children who reach the end of primary school in Africa – and remember a quarter never will – achieve a minimum proficiency level in reading.
Despite being born to learn and having the same right to education as other children around the world, Africa’s children are five times less likely to learn the basics than children elsewhere.
Education’s moonshot moment
The spark from an exposed wire in the oxygen tank on Apollo 13 which caused a fire, ripping apart one oxygen tank and damaging another inside the spacecraft could have been fatal. Fortunately, it wasn’t.
There was backup equipment and on earth, the NASA flight director pulled his shift of controllers off regular rotation and spacecraft manufacturers worked around the clock to support NASA and the crew.
It was a rough journey home, but they made it back to Earth. That experience shows that even in the face of a massive setback, with focus, determination, and resources it’s possible to course correct.
Today the term moonshot is used to describe an extremely ambitious project or mission undertaken to achieve a monumental goal.
It is the sort of thinking and planning that we need to turn around the learning crisis.
To solve the massive and persistent crisis in learning, we need to develop a shared understanding of the problem and commit to a collaborative, mission-oriented plan to get every child in school and ensure that in doing so they learn to read and do basic sums.
This will require a concerted effort to guarantee even the minimal conditions to improve participation and learning outcomes, such as school meals, which only one in three primary school students in Africa receive.
Similarly, despite the fact that each child having a textbook can improve literacy scores by 20%, on average textbooks are shared between three children.
Meanwhile improving teacher training, implementing national learning assessments, and connecting schools to the internet will require even more focus and effort.
African countries are increasingly recognising the learning crises and acting to prioritize learning. They must be supported in this effort by donor governments, with both more and better financing, provided in a way that helps drive improvements in learning outcomes.
The learning crisis is solvable
Given the extent and severity of the crisis in basic education and foundational learning across Africa, we need to think bigger and mobilize our resources in a way that is as bold and as inspirational as the moon landing.
Our message to parliamentarians is make this – one of the most ‘wicked’ social problems of our time – your moonshot.
We need greater understanding of both the challenge and the solutions to the learning crisis in the parliaments of Africa. That’s because, like every moonshot, it requires a strong, long term focus that can only be achieved with political leadership.
Doing so will transform the life chances of millions of children and their families, paving the way for more peaceful, prosperous and sustainable societies.