Nine out of ten children in sub-Saharan Africa lack basic comprehension skills


Primary school enrollment in sub-Saharan Africa is the highest ever – an incredible 99.9%. This is proof that with enough political will and taking the right measures, it is possible to carry out the reforms. While this laid a great foundation, access alone did not ensure children learned in school. Now is the time for us to turn our attention to the quality of education. Nine out of ten children in Africa cannot read with comprehension by the age of 10. This phenomenon is called learning poverty.

By age 10, a school-going child should be able to read and do basic math, the basic skills needed for further learning and developing advanced skills.

Without these foundational skills, many African children are unprepared for the learning that comes next and are therefore not guaranteed to learn meaningfully in secondary or any other education. Moreover, they are not guaranteed an opportunity for productive employment that would translate into upward social mobility for individuals, communities, countries and the continent as a whole. Focusing on the problems of the present should not make us myopic about the crisis that awaits us in the future.

I attribute my passion for basic education to my parents who emphasized the importance of learning to read, write and do basic math as a solid foundation for the rest of our lives.

They have also used their modest resources to provide scholarships to less privileged children in our community. Their commitment was based on their knowledge that education is an investment with high returns for individuals and communities.

What needs to be done

Against this backdrop, it was evident when I became Nigeria’s Minister of Education that a concerted effort was needed to increase equitable access to basic education and improve learning outcomes on a large scale. With the support of an industry team and the collaboration of relevant stakeholders, we have successfully integrated more than half a million out-of-school children into classrooms in a single school term and improved learning by training teachers in effective pedagogy.

Invest in foundational literacy and numeracy skills It is not just about harnessing the potential of over a billion Africans, but it is also about ensuring that Africans are not deprived of the opportunity to fully determine for themselves what what their life could become. Poor learning in schools is a major contributor to human capital deficits, and even with high levels of schooling it undermines our continent’s development efforts.

Covid-19 adds an additional complication to this challenge. Its impact on children’s learning, as with almost all development indicators, has been an erosion of established gains in existing systems.

In the long term, this generation of children and young people is projected to lose $10 billion in future income, or nearly 10% of global GDP.

It is important to secure the future by acting now, and ensuring that nine out of ten children catch up and are equipped to lead healthy, productive lives that empower them. In Nigeria’s Edo State, at the height of the pandemic, teachers were able to prevent learning loss by delivering lessons through interactive quizzes and even via mobile phones. This work was supported by UNICEF’s Accelerator program and state governor Godwin Obaseki confirmed that 7,000 WhatsApp classrooms had been created by teachers to ensure children continued to learn.

Government cooperation

At this point, it is important to note that there can be no improvement in learning outcomes without political will. Greater proactivity from high-level leaders is needed to secure funding for learning interventions. This can be difficult as competing issues vie for attention across the socio-economic spectrum. In this case, there may be a reallocation of existing resources to focus on foundational learning. Furthermore, policy makers can produce significant advances in a variety of societal challenges, by targeting inequalities in education.

Looking at the evidence of what works with a group of some of Africa’s top leaders, Human Capital Africa – an organization committed to ensuring that basic literacy and numeracy remain a priority for governments in sub-Saharan Africa – was founded. And we issued a call to action, imploring leaders to take action and improve learning outcomes for children.

Focusing on the quality of learning is the first step, then we need to be able to measure and monitor performance towards achieving our goal.

This gives the opportunity to correct course early on when remediation is still possible. Next, there is a need to increase technical and implementation capacity to improve reading and math in the early grades. Governments need not walk this relatively uncharted path alone. Across the continent, there are organizations already making progress To improve learning outcomes, an approach that leverages the depth and breadth of government resources and the expertise of technical partners is the best bet for our program.

Collaborations are possible with organizations such as the PAL Network, which conducts education policy gap analyses, administers citizen assessments to assess levels of learning, and deploys action interventions and learning camps to support children.

Similarly, UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR) is working with national ministries of education to produce a report that measures and monitors progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education, at the end of this process, countries have a resource to support policy development and leverage the GEMR peer learning and accountability mechanism to continue their progress.

At the end of the line

Education systems need to center children’s learning and support teachers as facilitators of learning to achieve desired outcomes. Human Capital Africa is committed to improving learning on the continent and we stand ready to support policy makers in their efforts to do the same.

We implore the leaders of countries to step up to recognize the magnitude of the crisis and to take the necessary steps to secure the future of this generation and those to come. There will be no shortage of technical support once African policymakers decide to tackle the learning crisis head-on, our children and our countries will indeed be better off for it.

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