Between 2008 and 2010 the number of out-of-school children in Sub-Saharan Africa increased by 1.6 million. As national governments and the international community strive to achieve universal primary education by 2015, we need to understand why too many countries’ progress has stalled or gone into reverse. One factor that acts as a significant break on progress and that is the low quality of much of the schooling currently provided. There is a danger of seeing the issues of access to school and education quality as separate. In reality they are intimately linked because without improvements in learning outcomes it will not be possible to achieve 100% access.
The chart below, taken from this year’s UNESCO Global Monitoring Report (GMR), shows that there was rapid progress in getting kids into school between 1999 and around 2004. Since then the decline has been less sharp – and in the last two years almost non-existent.
These global figures mask many national differences. Some countries have continued to make progress. Mozambique, for example, had more than 1 million out-of-school children in 2004, a number it had cut to less than 400,000 by 2010. Tanzania and Rwanda are other examples of countries which continue to chip away at the problem. But more often than not the pattern is more worrying.
In South Africa there were fewer than 400,000 out of school children in 2004, but according to the latest UNESCO figures this has increased to over 650,000. Even countries which have performed well overall in the last decade have started to see ticks up in the last few years—in Ethiopia for example, the data shows 100,000 more children out of school between 2009 and 2010.
The case of Nigeria
The GMR team has highlighted the case of Nigeria. In 2004 there were 7.1 million children out of school, but by 2010 this had increased to a staggering 10.5 million. Demographic changes are part of the explanation here. But they do not appear to be the main factor. Over a slightly longer time period the enrollment rate for primary education has fallen in Nigeria. According to the World Bank it was 65% in 2007 and had fallen to 58% by 2010. This year’s GMR also charted the recent leveling off of aid for education. And a critical issue is that it is harder (and often more expensive) to get some of the most marginalized and deprived children into school (although this does not explain an increase in the number of out-of-school children).
The learning crisis in poor countries
However, it seems increasingly likely that a significant break on progress is the poor and—in some cases declining—quality of the education provided. This learning crisis is increasingly well-documented. One of the latest contributions to the debate came just a few months ago when Kofi Anan’s Africa Progress Panel concluded that “many of the children in school are receiving an education of such abysmal quality that they are learning very little.”
Poor parents often make incredible sacrifices for their children to receive an education, but because of this learning crisis too often they are let down by the low quality of the education their children receive. And when children are not learning, what is the incentive for parents to send their children to school? When pupils fail to master core skills in primary school there is a risk that they will disengage from learning when it get harder in higher grades. As the UN’s special envoy, Gordon Brown has noted, “One of the reasons that so many children drop out of school after the early grades is that they have not mastered the basic reading and numeracy skills that they need to progress to higher levels.”
Not every country is the same
Nigeria is just one example of the potential impact of poor learning outcomes on enrollment rates. According to the African Learning Barometer 58% of Nigerian children were “not learning” by the end of primary school in 2009 and. 66% could not read. This compares poorly with other countries in the region. For example, in Senegal—a country where enrollment rates in primary education have not declined—the number of children “not learning” was just 21% according to this 2009 data.
Exactly how much of the education access challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa is due to the low quality of schooling is difficult to disentangle. It will be a pressing priority for policy makers and researchers to get a fuller understanding of the factors leading to a stalling in progress towards the Education Millennium Development Goal (MDG). This includes the particular challenges in specific countries and for poor and marginalized groups of children.
But a vital part of the mix must surely be the interaction between low levels of learning and stalled progress on access. This is one reason why it is right that there is growing interest in a learning goal as part of the post-2015 successor to the MDGs. But as the world strives to achieve universal primary education, it is also why a focus on school quality, and particularly learning for the most marginalized and poorest children, needs to be a major focus right now.
By Will Paxton