Foundational learning is the place to start

Keynote statement by H.E. President Bio, President of the Republic of Sierra Leone at a high-level side event during the AU Summit, 18 February, 2023

The African Union launched the 2016-2025 Continental Education Strategy to create a new African citizen who would be an effective change agent and a citizen who would help get the continent on the sustainable development track, as envisioned by our 2063 Agenda.

Our efforts are therefore geared towards teaching fit-for-purpose knowledge, competencies, skills, and promoting innovation and creativity required to develop Africa’s human capital.

The formative new report, Education in Africa – Placing equity at the heart of policy, just published by UNESCO and the African Union shows that learning losses occasioned and intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic and other global events have set the continent back even further. The report seemingly shows that our vision to develop competitive educational systems in Africa is still out of reach.

Despite our best efforts, African countries are still situated at the bottom of education tables. On one hand, this tells us that our countries may have started with a disadvantage. On the other hand, there is a perceived risk that we may not meet our ambitions to achieve SDG 4.

We should however be careful to avoid reading this report as a blanket assessment. The new SDG 4 scorecard proposes a way to evaluate progress by how likely each country is to achieve the benchmarks it has set for itself, rather than the often unrealistic targets that were externally imposed.

The new assessment report accompanying the scorecard gives credit to countries for their progress, regardless of their starting point. It allows us to pinpoint countries that are cutting through challenges to achieve progress. It does not look at how countries are ranked on a global scale. We should therefore identify the policies that are helping to make the difference.

Sierra Leone, for instance, is pleased to appear on the SDG 4 Scorecard. Our country’s Free Quality School Education programme has prioritised and increased education spending and investments, introduced inclusive policies, and expanded access to education to over one million new learners especially from the early childhood education level. Through our national integrated early childhood development policy, we have made great progress in giving children the best start in life. In addition to political support and commitment at the highest levels, we believe that the right progressive policies will afford us the opportunity to achieve the goals we set.

It is in linking progress to policies that we welcome efforts such as the African Union’s Born to Learn annual Spotlight report with UNESCO and ADEA. With a focus on the foundation of our education systems, the Spotlight series collaboratively engages countries to analyse their policies and see where improvements can be made. I was therefore hugely pleased to see the DRC, Ghana, Mozambique, Rwanda and Senegal join this effort.

Sierra Leone believes strongly that foundational learning is the place to start. We can meet our CESA objectives if we focus on getting foundational learning right.

We should not take foundational literacy and computational skills for granted. We should also be mindful that African children are less likely to learn the basics than children from elsewhere. We should also be careful that when we look at progress, we look at progress that does not leave anyone behind.  Our vision for change should be driven by an ‘allmeansall’ approach, as Sierra Leone has strived to put in place with its Radical Inclusion Policy.  Without foundational skills for all, we will not achieve our broader objective of creating the stronger, more prosperous, more inclusive future we desire for our children.

We must collaborate among our various countries, learn from one another, and build on our experiences to tackle similar challenges.

This desire for greater collaboration led the African Union to launch, at the end of last year, LEARN — a peer-learning mechanism to support our technical experts in CESA clusters to find new solutions to improve foundational learning on our continent. I would like to congratulate the AU Commissioner for this initiative.

Addressing learning loss and learning poverty is not just a matter of national and continental concern. As President, I co-chaired the Transforming Education Summit convened by the United Nations Secretary-General in New York in September and I also sit as co-chair of the SDG 4 High Level Steering Committee convened by UNESCO.

At all these levels, I add my voice to a strong global movement to address three critical factors for change: political commitment, data, and evidence-based policy recommendations. The more we learn from one another’s experiences and the more we collaborate, the better it is for our children to learn as well.

We should use every opportunity to share lessons and build partnerships across the continent. Our citizens look up to us to find the solutions to our shared education challenges.

There is real strength to be found in solidarity and unity of purpose in Africa – the founding pillars of our union that bring us to this summit today. The opportunity is here now. Let us not waste it.

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