/ 29 November 2019

Continuity is key to fixing education

Prioritise: Education on the African continent is riddled with problems
Prioritise: Education on the African continent is riddled with problems, which Graça Machel says is because policies change too frequently. (Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters)



The Mail & Guardian’s education reporter, Bongekile Macupe, went to the World Innovation Summit for Education in Qatar to find out how other countries are dealing with education problems similar to South Africa’s

Graça Machel has suggested that perhaps the only way African countries can have good education systems is if they form national pacts to set education priorities that will remain in place until they have been achieved — and not get influenced, manipulated or cancelled by changing governments.

Machel was speaking at a roundtable discussion about“Africa at the forefront of the education revolution”, at the annual World Innovation Summit for Education (Wise) held in Doha, Qatar last week.

“We are saying ‘we must do this, we must do that but, sitting around this table, do we have the power to solve those problems? Who is the one to take the fundamental responsibility of taking our national resources and putting them in exactly the right place and say this is not going to change for the next 20 to 30 years?” Machel asked

“I think education has to be decided in a national pact in which government, business, researchers, civil society organisations, parents and communities all agree that they all have specific priorities and the priorities which are going to be agreed upon.”

This, she said, would ensure that future administrations cannot “change everything because the minister has different priorities and the president has different priorities and the minister of finance has different priorities”.

Machel — the first minister of education in independent Mozambique — said she did not know of any African country which has such a national framework and, as such, most countries on the continent go back and forth on their education priorities.

As an example, Machel pointed to Finland, which was ranked as a relatively poor country 30 years ago and now has one of the best education systems in the world, “because they stuck to the priorities, the national consensus and the allocation of resources”.

Machel told delegates that they should recommend the national pact to their respective countries.

Editor-in-chief of Afrique magazine, Zyad Limam — who moderated the session — said it is estimated that in the next 10 years, 450-million children are going to enter the education system in Africa, but that today only four out of 100 children have a chance to advance to tertiary education.

“How can we reconcile those two numbers?” Limam asked. “Should we invest first in primary education, basic learning, teaching, gender equalities at the very first step or should we invest in higher education so that Africa can move faster at the value chain? Or should we prioritise both? And if we do both, with what resources or what technology?”

Machel said education should be priority number one for any nation that has a dream of helping itself be part of the modern world.

She said, however, what was most critical was to offer basic and secondary education of the highest quality. She said that if children could not read, count or think critically, they would not be able to take full advantage of what technology offers.

Aïcha Bah Diallo, former education minister in Guinea and now at theUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), agrees. She said countries have to work at getting the basics right from early childhood development right up to tertiary education.

She pointed out thatAfrica is not poor and could get the funds to invest in a working education system. But this depended on the will of the governments and the leadership in those governments, she said.

“When a country knows that to develop you have to invest in education then they will do so … if you solve education everything else will be solved.”

But “solving education” is difficult when there are problems at so many levels of the education system. Some delegates pointed out that, because higher education is becoming contracted and cheaper— with developments such as virtual colleges — it makes more sense to invest in basic education and “forget” about higher education.

Onedelegate said: “I would invest in basic and let tertiary innovate and reinvent because it is going to look very different really soon.”

Others felt that the emphasis has to be put on reading, because children who cannot read will fail to thrive anywhere.

The sentiments expressed were that currently too many children on the continent cannot read properly.

Italso appears that there are not enough books available for African children to learn how to read. In another session at Wise, Penelope Bender from Burda Education — a German-based company that provides textbooks and other learning material to Africa and Asia — said more than 600-million children around the world are not learning basic skills, such as reading, even though some have been at school for years.

Many of these children are in Africa, she said.

“We know that students and teachers do not have the textbooks and other materials that they need to teach and learn… 12 children in Cameroon are sharing a single textbook, which is written in a language they don’t understand. Books cost $1 in India but $8 in East Africa. Millions of books were just found rotting in warehouses in Bangladesh. What can we do, collectively, to create a functioning, cost-effective book supply chain that ensures that every child gets the books they need when they need them?”

Bongekile Macupe’s trip to Qatar was paid for by the World Innovation Summit for Education