The number of children enrolled in primary school in Africa increased from 60-million in 2000 to some 250-million today, according to the annual Goalkeepers report card released by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And the rate of growth was equal for boys and girls.
But although more children are attending classes, quality remains uneven. The challenge now is to ensure that all children, including those who are in school — at all grade levels — are learning the full breadth of skills they need to thrive.
To give young people the best chance of success, the two “bookends” to primary school — early childhood education and secondary education — must also be sturdy.
Early childhood education prepares children for primary school by teaching co-operation, perseverance, self-control and other essential skills. These formative years are critical for a child’s education, because, according to Unesco, more than half of all children and adolescents worldwide never develop foundational competencies crucial to becoming life-long learners.
At the other end of the spectrum, secondary education helps adolescents to prepare for the job market. To succeed, pupils must achieve minimum proficiency in reading, maths and numerous non cognitive skills.
But even here, educational outcomes are disappointing. In low-income countries, nine out of 10 young people lack basic secondary-education-level proficiency across a suite of essential skills, ranging from literacy and critical thinking to maths and problem-solving.
In sub-Saharan Africa alone, an estimated 200-million young people (about 90% of the primary and lower secondary-school population) are not able to read basic texts.
Development specialists know that a good education is transformative for pupils as well as families, communities and countries. One study from 2008 found that the quality of a country’s education system —and the cognitive abilities of its graduates —positively influences economic growth. That fact alone should be enough to convince fragile states and their donors to invest in expanding access to quality education.
But there are other, more indirect benefits, especially for women and girls. Better-educated women delay pregnancy and typically have smaller families. Development experts, demographers and education advocates recognise that, in many parts of the world, female empowerment is proportionate to family size. For example, our research has found that a woman with zero years of schooling will have, on average, four to five more children than a woman with 12 years of schooling.
Increasing educational opportunities for girls would also benefit the planet. The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis has projected that, if every girl in the world completed secondary education, fertility rates would drop and the global population growth would slow by as many as two billion people by 2045, and more than five billion by 2100. The deceleration would be even greater if the 214-million women worldwide who want to avoid pregnancy could have access to family-planning services. It is no coincidence that many of these women live in countries where fewer girls than boys attend school.
Taken together, schooling and family planning could translate into a 120-gigaton reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over the next three decades, because fewer people consumed fewer resources. Environmentalists such as Paul Hawken believe that education,and educating girls in particular,is one of the most effective steps the world can take to combat climate change.
The annual Goalkeepers report is a reminder that issues such as gender inequality, malnutrition, violence and political instability will plague the world’s poorest people for decades to come. Among solutions, few are as effective as quality education. If fragile states and international donors directed more resources to strengthening education’s three pillars — early, primary and secondary — what we call the world’s “severely off-track countries” would finally have a chance to get back on track. — © Project Syndicate
Homi Kharas is interim vice-president and director of the Global Economy and Development programme at The Brookings Institution. Rebecca Winthrop is a senior fellow and director of the Centrefor Universal Education at The Brookings Institution