The failure in Sub-Saharan Africa to raise academic achievements using Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) is sending education experts back to the drawing board. They want to establish the primary purpose of schooling, or in that matter, why parents send children to school.
The African Union Commission and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) have also entered into the debate by identifying the major shortcomings and weaknesses in education in the region, as well as making a raft of recommendations to raise academic outcomes.
None of those proposals have cited CBC, which mainly focuses on skills, as a necessary reform agenda of Africa’s education system, but in totality have faulted the inefficiency of education delivery platforms.
To the backers of CBC, it is only a matter of time before the skill-based learning system starts showing results and everybody will be too happy.
But the second school of thought argues that the basic purpose of schooling is to provide students with an opportunity to acquire knowledge that they cannot get at home or in their local communities.
In that aspect, the group had been calling for learners to be given ‘powerful knowledge’ embedded in school subjects such as Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, History, Geography, Religion, Biology, languages and the like, as those such would provide them with explanations and new ways of thinking about their environment, and not just acting in a vocational world.
According to that new school of thought, the need to acquire the ‘powerful knowledge’ is one of the key reasons why most parents make huge sacrifices to get their children into schools.
From that perspective of curriculum reform, the real challenge is to improve the design of the curriculum so that it better reflects the logic of the school subjects rather than developing early career skills.
But irrespective of which side of the curriculum change oneself might be in, Unicef and the African Union Commission have described 87 per cent of children in Sub-Saharan Africa as ‘learning poor,’ meaning that they are unable to read and understand a simple text by the age of ten, or when they are at Grade 3.
“While some of these children have never been to school or were taken out of school early, for others the poor quality of learning outcomes needs more explanation,” stated Robert Jenkins, the global director of education at Unicef, in the report, ‘Transforming Education in Africa: An evidence-based overview and recommendations for long-term improvements.’
What Unicef and the African Union Commission are telling African governments and in particular education officials is that school curricula that they have designed or bought from foreign marketers abroad are not working.
Of concern is that whereas since 2000 countries have made substantial progress in getting children to school, there is little to show in terms of learning, as a result of poor quality learning outcomes for those in school.
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In addition, the report that was released on September 18 at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, says there are still too many students in Africa that are on the margins of education, as many leave school without completion for a wide range of reasons.
To date, one in three children in a cohort does not complete primary school, while just before the Covid-19 pandemic, about 105 million children of primary and secondary school age were out of school in Africa, says the report.
Despite the introduction of CBC and other curricula that are promoted as learner-centred pedagogy, some of which are also highlighted as academic improvement game-changers, the World Bank estimates that by 2030, about 78 per cent of children in Sub-Saharan Africa will be learning poor, as 37 million children in the region will learn so little in school that they will not be much better off than those out of school.
“But even if countries were to maintain their fastest rates of progress observed in recent decades, learning poverty will not be eliminated by 2030,” adds the report.
The issue is that on average, the proportion of children reaching the minimum level of competency at the end of primary school in Sub-Saharan Africa is only 35 per cent in reading and 22 per cent in mathematics.
In this regard, the authors of the report noted there are so many problems from the students’ side that account for the poor learning in the region and included distance to the school in remote rural areas, scattered populations, and harsh environmental conditions in some areas.
Unicef highlighted household extreme poverty, cultural conservatism, and child labour economy.
On the side of the educational system, the report stressed poor school management, inappropriate school curricula, dilapidated buildings, lack of human and inadequate learning facilities have all made schooling unattractive to many children in Sub-Saharan Africa.
For instance, Sub-Saharan African countries are some of the few places whereby one can find a teacher holding a class under a tree, or in decayed school facilities, sometimes without a toilet or water facilities.
But even worse, there is a pressing need for qualified teachers in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the Institute of Statistics at the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the demand for teachers who are needed to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030 in the region stands at about 17 million. About 6.3 million will be for primary school to fill new posts or replace those who are expected to leave, while 10.8 million will be for secondary schools.
According to the report, in spite of the challenges related to the low number of teachers, their qualifications, and training, there are also challenges related to teacher management.
Both the administrative and pedagogical management of teachers in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa suffer from serious shortcomings in teacher deployment, career management, teacher training, professional development, supervision, number of teaching hours, remuneration, and accountability.
Unfortunately, poverty remains one of the main factors of exclusion from education in Sub-Saharan African countries.
The report says a child from the richest 20 per cent of households in the region is eight times more likely to complete primary education than a child from the poorest 20 per cent of households.
“This ratio would rise to 12 times if one considered secondary education,” stated Dr Silvia Montoya, the director of the Institute of Statistics at Unesco. In order to rescue African education and to start educating children as in other continents, Prof Sarah Anyang Agbor, the commissioner for education, science, technology, and innovation at the African Union Commission has advised countries to start allocating at least 15 to 20 per cent of public expenditure to education.
But according to Agbor, the main problem is that most of the money that is allocated to education is lost through inefficiency, which implies that African countries could improve their primary education by 42 per cent just with their current levels of spending, by improving the efficiency of education financing.
Inefficient causes were not just impacting the quality of education but were contributing to the high repetition and dropout rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. Across Africa, the average repetition rate is 10 per cent at the primary level and 13 per cent at the junior general secondary level, compared to two per cent and three per cent respectively in other continents.
Quoting Eliud Kipchoge, the marathon world record holder, Agbor says: “The best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago.
The second-best time to plant a tree is today.” What Agbor appears to be reminding the African governments is that there are no shortcuts to quality learning and should have started investing in the education of children in their countries over half a century ago, just after the attainment of independence. But because they ignored to do it, they should do it now.