Africa’s soaring economic growth over the past 15 years has resulted in a burst of optimism about the continent’s future.
But amid the popping of champagne corks, African leaders mustn’t lose sight of the fact that dire education standards could bring the economy back to cold sober reality.
At the World Economic Forum on Africa summit this week in Cape Town there was excited talk about rising foreign investment flows, increased public investment in infrastructure, and the high-tech jobs of the future.
Meanwhile, Africa’s children often face schools that are badly equipped and underfunded, with teachers who are poorly trained, when they are in the classroom at all.
In a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranking of 76 education systems around the world, South Africa and Ghana were ranked lowest.
The proportion of children finishing primary school in sub-Saharan Africa has rapidly increased, but the quality of education they receive is often dire. Adult literacy rates in sub-Saharan Africa are around 59%, compared with a global average of 84%.
Kenyan teachers are absent on average for half the time. South Africa languishes at the bottom of the international league table for maths and science.
Poor education is a personal tragedy that imprisons people in poverty. But it is a collective failure that could also cost the continent its chance to prosper.
According to the OECD, if all 15-year-olds achieved a basic level of education, Ghana could increase its economic growth by 3 881% and South Africa by 2 624%.
What can Africa do to change? First, there needs to be a focus on the unglamorous area of vocational training. In South Africa, where half of young people are unemployed, three-quarters of companies struggle to fill engineering roles.
African governments must work closely with employers to find out where the skills gaps lie.
India’s experience should be a cautionary tale. The National Skills Development Council there created many trained workers who haven’t found demand for their qualifications in the labour market. Employer involvement is how countries such as Germany raised vocational education’s standards, filled skills gaps and kept youth unemployment down.
There are signs that this is beginning to happen. The Go for Gold partnership in South Africa, a collaboration between the education department and engineering firms, offers promising students extra school classes and paid work experience.
In Nigeria, philanthropist Tony Elumelu, who has funded a huge programme to plug the shortage of plumbers, electricians and welders, is working to encourage the government to adopt a more work-based approach to vocational training.
Second, African schools must harness new technology. Distance learning, in which lessons are live-streamed over the internet, can provide a backstop of quality when teachers’ standards vary so wildly.
The Varkey Foundation operates a distance learning initiative – “Making Ghanaian Girls Great” – tailored for girls, who are prone to leaving school prematurely. Lessons are led by a teacher based in a studio in the capital, Accra, that are then fed into classrooms throughout the region. A local teacher is present in each classroom to ensure that pupils keep up with the lessons.
Third, the energies of the private sector should be set free to assist public education systems. It has the resources to scale up quickly, whereas education has to compete with hospitals and roads for straitened government budgets. Free from direct education ministry micro-management, the private sector also has the ability to innovate.
The children of drivers, security guards and cleaners are choosing low-cost private schools throughout Africa, not only the elites.
In South Africa, private school enrolments rose by 76% in the decade to 2010 and have introduced changes to the curriculum such as “blended learning” – in which online learning and classroom lessons are combined.
Whereas once there was official suspicion about private schools, there is now recognition that they provide essential capacity.
The Kenyan education ministry, after years of trying to shut down unapproved private schools, now accepts they are necessary in Nairobi’s and Mombasa’s slums.
Too often failures of education policy are laid at the door of teachers, when they are dedicated people working in trying circumstances.
If less than 60% of teachers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and Mozambique are professionally qualified, it is the responsibility of their governments to improve teacher training.
If absenteeism levels are high, it is not necessarily because teachers are lazy; it could be because they have had to work a second job because they cannot rely on their government salary being paid on time.
According to Unesco, there has been a decline in teacher pay across Africa since 1975. It will be impossible to attract the brightest teachers if teacher status remains low, conditions remain poor and graduates see teaching as an option of last resort.
The picture for African education may seem bleak, but progress can be made remarkably quickly.
South Korea, which I visited two weeks ago, had high levels of illiteracy in the 1960s. Fifty years later it tops the international educational rankings.
South Korean policy-makers had the foresight to pay teachers well and demand that all teachers were educated to second-degree standard.
Unless African leaders show some of that wisdom and political will, the continent will remain at the bottom of the class.
Vikas Pota is chief executive of the Varkey Foundation