Education must not fail another generation


My life was utterly changed at the age of eight when I was sent to school – a journey that saw me abroad for further and higher education.  This precious education meant I could return to my country and support efforts to improve the lives of future generations and make a meaningful contribution to  the development process all over the continent of Africa.
This was more than five decades ago. Today, as the publication [TODAY] of UNESCO’s
Education for All Global Monitoring Report shows, we the world continue to fail our children.
The UNESCO report shows that one in five young people in developing countries have never completed primary school. In Nigeria, where I grew up, we have more children out of school today than we had at independence.
Education is not merely a problem for the education ministries to solve. In today’s global economy, failing to provide proper education will undermine economic growth and reinforce social inequalities. Africa has some of the world’s fastest growing economies, as we highlighted in our 2012 Africa Progress Report, and this pace looks set to continue for the coming years.But oil and minerals alone will not sustain this economic growth. And development indicators suggest the growth figures are much less impressive than they initially seem. Places like the Republic of Korea and other East Asian ‘tiger’ economies teach us that a meaningful and sustainable growth surge can only be maintained by emphasizing the development of our youth with skills and education.
At the Africa Progress Panel, we talk about a “twin crisis” in Africa’s education. The number of children out of school may have dropped significantly between 2000 and 2009 but Africa is still on track to have 17 million children out of school by 2025, a decade after the world’s 2015 target date for universal primary education.
Meanwhile, many African children are receiving an education of abysmal quality. Far from equipping themselves for a globalized economy, millions of Africans emerge from primary school lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills. They face the prospect of marginalization, poverty, and insecure unemployment.  They easily fall into crime and squalor.
UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report shows that investment in schoolchildren and students represents a sound financial opportunity. If 75% more 15-year-olds reached the most basic benchmark in maths, then economic growth could improve by 2.1%, and 104 million people could be lifted out of poverty.  An African NGO, Camfed (The Campaign for Female Education), supports poor girls from rural areas with grants and training in business management, for example. More than nine in ten of young women’s businesses are now making profit as a result of the work of this NGO.
Governments and their partners must make it easier for more children to go to school, no matter how disadvantaged they are – and to ensure they receive a better quality education when they do
As we make clear in this year’s Africa Progress Report, governments should target those who have been left behind. A child’s education should not depend on whether they are male or female, or on whether their parents are rich or poor, urban or rural. Public spending should target disadvantaged schools and regions. Financial transfers aimed at keeping children in school – and young girls out of child labour or early marriage – all have a role to play.
Second, we need to find more teachers and equip them to teach. Too often, our children are being subjected to rote learning by teachers lacking the skills to deliver effective instruction, and lacking the support to improve their performance. And too often they are sitting in classrooms lacking benches to sit on and textbooks. This cannot be an effective way of learning.  Children are more discouraged than encouraged to learn within the environment and quality of teachers provided
Third, we need to see more attention paid to the education crisis in conflict countries, where conflicts that last a decade or more can set back education by a generation.
Fourth, donors must spend less time talking about commitments and more time acting on those promises. We need US$16bn a year just to keep the Education for All promise made in 2000 that by 2015 all children are able to complete their primary education. To achieve universal lower secondary school enrollment would cost a further US$8bn.
For those who have seen the school system fail them already, we need ‘second chance’ programmes to ensure young people have the skills they need. There are encouraging signs here.  In Malawi, where only half of children manage to complete primary school, as many as 10,000 students have taken part in such a scheme; half of those so far have either completed the course or returned to primary school.
I was given the chance to succeed with an education received more than sixty years ago. And for today’s small girls and boys we have to take action now. By 2030 there will be three and a half times as many young people in sub-Saharan Africa as there were in 1980.  We cannot afford to fail another generation.

Olusegun Obasanjo is a member of the Africa Progress Panel.