Imagine not being able to read a short, simple story yet you went to school and have the intellectual ability. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many children in Africa today. Learning poverty is real. According to the World Bank, learning poverty is one of the most intuitive indicators of the learning crisis, which measures the share of children who cannot read a simple text with comprehension by age 10. Reading, together with writing, numeracy, and socio-emotional skills, is a key building block for all the other educational outcomes. Concerned by the slow pace of progress towards meeting SDG 4 (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all) the World Bank in 2019, announced a new operational global learning target: to cut the global Learning Poverty rate by at least half, to 27%, before 2030, stressing that achieving this target required the attention of governments and of technical and funding agencies supporting them.
Widespread learning poverty predated the pandemic. However, in Africa, the pandemic worsened an already dire situation. The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update published by various development partners indicates that learning poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa is now at an all-time high of 89%. It has increased by a third in low- and middle-income countries, globally with an estimated 70% of 10-year-olds unable to understand a simple written text. The longer schools were closed, the more children’s reading, writing, numeracy, and socio-emotional skills development stalled. This high level is a signal that many education systems, despite their progress in the recent decades at improving access to schools, are not delivering universal quality education. And from an economic perspective, it does not bode well for a continent that often touts children and the youth as its future – ‘the leaders of tomorrow,’ and the people it is banking on to move Africa to the next frontier.
Without rethinking and doubling efforts to increase access to quality education and improve learning outcomes, the SDG target of universal quality education for all by 2030 will remain a pipe dream for many. Free primary and secondary school education initiatives, as impressive as they are, especially in increasing enrollment rates, are not enough. There is a dire need to ensure that students are learning and achieving academic milestones.
Africa’s global competitiveness hinges partly on the strength of its human capital; the ability to tap into a stellar pool of skilled talent cannot be overstated. Failure to change the damning status of learning poverty would be a case of negligence by stakeholders. It is projected that inaction on learning poverty will cost today’s generation of learners in low- and middle-income countries $11 trillion worth of lifetime earnings.
Building more schools alone is far from enough to combat this challenge. How do we reshape our education systems to eradicate the worryingly high learning poverty rate that continues to plague Africa?
First, governments should prioritize the delivery of quality education for all to ensure no child is unable to access quality education regardless of her/his background. This includes looking into curriculums, teaching methods, staffing levels and capacity, and institutional capacities to adequately develop the foundational skills of learners. Teachers must also be supported to provide learners with quality education. Whether it’s career growth support or adequate learning and teaching resources, their needs must be considered.
We live in a digital age. It is crucial to bridge the digital divide in education as a matter of urgency. As witnessed when schools closed due to the pandemic and learning shifted online, inequality reared its ugly head as children from poor backgrounds struggled to access educational resources. It is time to reimagine our education systems to meet the needs of a growing digital landscape.
Communities must also be involved and demand quality education. Many parents, for instance, remain unaware of the dire learning poverty situation as they have placed their trust fully in schools and teachers- unaware that these systems are bogged down by numerous challenges. Most parents still hold the notion that their only headache is paying school fees, the rest is up to the child and the school and teachers. Their expectations of their children based on the education they receive are therefore misplaced.
Collaboration is key. All stakeholders including parents, teachers, educational institutions, governments, development organizations, private sector players, and learners must work together to formulate plans to counter learning poverty. We should also track efforts to eradicate learning poverty, constantly reviewing progress and learning from each other, locally within our countries and externally.
To turn the tide on the widening learning poverty, several measures and commitments are needed: political goodwill from the highest level, additional financing and support for accelerating learning, and building the foundations for more prosperous and equitable societies. It’s time for leaders, governments, professionals, and other stakeholders to step forward and take the lead in this urgent action for the wellbeing of children and youth, our future, and our heritage.