Africa: Millions of Children at Risk of Missing Education despite Progress

By Joyce Chimbi

Marisol Ntalami is one of the 747,161 candidates who sat for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education, a national exam for secondary students,  in 2020. Of these, half of them were males, while the rest were females as per the Ministry of Education.

“I come from a pastoral community. My father has five wives and many children. I am the only girl in the family to have completed primary school and now secondary school. My mother fought very hard for me to stay in school. I am a first year University student studying actuarial science,” she recounts.

Kenya’s strides towards Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) on education, are well documented in the most recent benchmarking report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute of Statistics and the Global Education Monitoring Report. The East African country is one of the participating countries that has provided targets it expects to achieve by 2025 and 2030.

Like Kenya, two thirds of countries identified their targets for 2025 and 2030 relative to six key SDG 4 indicators on early childhood education attendance, school attendance, completion, minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics, trained teachers; and public education expenditure.

The process started in 2021, and the report shows as per the government’s own measures, Kenya is “near universal early childhood education, with plans to increase attendance to 86.7 percent by 2030. Kenya is also on track to achieve universal primary education by 2030.”

Still, according to respective countries own benchmarks, not all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa will achieve SDG 4 by 2030.

“Countries that have participated in this benchmarking process have sent a powerful message. They have shown determination in advancing the promises they made seven  years ago when they signed the SDGs,” Manos Antoninis, the director of UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report expounds.

“By setting concrete targets, they are no longer hiding behind a global unreachable goal, they are making plans to achieve it. This is a real opportunity for the global community to rally behind them and help their plans come true.”

The world’s most vulnerable children are deprived of an education and the long term socio-economic opportunities education affords. Photo Joyce Chimbi

Uganda, as per the Ministry of Education, worked from the commitments made in the Education Sector Strategic Plan, to establish achievable benchmarks for education targets between now and 2030.

The report recommends that all countries that have not yet set their benchmarks to do so in time for this year’s review of SDG 4 at the High-level Political Forum in July as it helps bring countries back on track towards bringing all children in Africa, to school.

“As we continue to face peaks in the Covid-19 pandemic, data and evidence become even more important. In Rwanda, the close monitoring of national education priorities and the SDG 4 benchmarks will allow us to intervene quickly and in a tailored manner so that we ensure to live by our strong conviction that no child should be left behind,” a statement by Rwanda’s Ministry of Education reads in part.

Overall, sub-Saharan Africa increased primary education completion rate from 46 percent to 65 percent or by 19 percentage points, roughly one percentage point per year between 2000 and 2020. At this rate, the region is not on track and lags behind other regions in most indicators of education development.

Nevertheless, between 2000 and 2020, a growing list of countries made notable progress in primary education completion rate.

As such, Togo increased primary education completion rate from 44 percent to 77 percent, Ethiopia from 18 to 57 percent, Burundi from 13 to 52 percent, Sierra Leone from 26 to 70 percent and Sao Tome and Principe from 46 to 57 percent.

By contrast, between 2000 and 2020, the primary completion rate in sub-Saharan Africa almost stagnated in countries such as the Central African Republic from 28 to 35 percent, Guinea-Bissau from 20 to 26 percent and Uganda from 35 to 40 percent.

Against this backdrop, Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Education Commission Chair lauds the commitment of countries that have set their own national ambitions and contributions towards the achievement of the global education goal.

“This process, the first of its kind in education, follows best practice in other sectors like climate. These benchmarks demonstrate countries’ drive to accelerate education progress between now and the 2030 deadline,” he says.

“This comes at a time when the global education system faces a myriad of challenges. The percentage of trained teachers for instance has been declining for much of the past 20 years, with notable but not enough reversal of this trend in recent years.”

Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and Western Asia will not achieve universal early childhood education, report finds. Photo Joyce Chimbi

However, slow progress is reported towards SDG 4 despite the fact that African countries, alongside Latin American countries, prioritize education more than any other region in their budget.

The size of the challenge is large and the size of the budget itself too small due to low levels of domestic resource mobilization and largely stagnant external financial assistance. In all, education experts such as Antoninis say it would be incorrect to say that sub-Saharan Africa has been derailed.

The region, UNESCO finds, has set off from much lower starting points due to poverty, malnutrition, health, conflict, displacement and difficulties of managing unique characteristics such as its linguistic diversity.

Many of Africa’s children are taught at school in a language they do not speak at home. Additionally, changes in education take a long time to mature.

According to UNESCO, COVID-19 has also affected countries unequally. Some countries, even within the same region in Africa, have kept their schools closed for two years, while others hardly closed them.

These closures are feared to have long term damaging effects for particularly Africa because of the lack of opportunities and capacity for distance learning. Still, the report finds that the main challenge remains the very low levels of student learning even when schools are open.

In all, just 3 out of 10 of those students who complete primary school learn the basic skills expected of their level of education, the report finds.

In all, sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and Western Asia will not achieve universal early childhood education, as it is estimated that roughly two in three children will be enrolled in early childhood education by 2030.

Further, 8 percent of children of primary school age are still predicted to be out of school in 2030. Kenya, for instance, will be far off meeting SDG 4 for upper secondary level because the country expects that only 64 percent of young people will complete school by 2030.

Overall, no region is on track to achieve universal completion of secondary education by 2030 because completion rates are expected to land at 89 percent at lower secondary and 72 percent at the upper secondary level by the deadline.

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