Freda Wolfenden: “Africa needs new solutions to its education challenges”

Access and Inclusion January 13, 2014

“Africa needs new solutions to its education challenges, not merely an extension of existing systems, ” writes Ms. Freda Wolfenden, Director of 2011 WISE Awards Winner TESSA, in this week’s guest article.

Through the Millennium Development Goals the global community promised all children a quality education regardless of their gender, ethnicity and educational needs.  Undoubtedly much progress has been achieved. For example, the number of pupils in school has increased by a third across Africa since 1999, but considerable challenges remain and will require attention in the policies and commitments developed for post 2015. However moving from policy rhetoric to practical reality is often the hardest step. For this we need to challenge much existing thinking around systems and practices,   harnessing and combining the latest thinking and tools such as findings from cognitive science and mobile technologies. 

For me there are two overarching challenges. Firstly access to education.  Globally there are still 67 million children out of school,  43% of whom live in Africa[1].  Many of these chldren live in conflict areas or ‘fragile’ states and many more live in rural areas. Every year 10 million children drop out of primary school in Sub Saharan Africa.  There are a multitude of reasons to explain why these children are not in schools – lack of facilities, culture, the need to be in employment and so on, but sometimes simple measures can make a huge difference.  A  Save the Children initiative in South Sudan increased school attendance considerably by building permanent classrooms with sanitary facilities. Children understandably preferred this environment to learning ‘under the tree’.   More  such innovative solutions are needed  for the provision of schooling to girls, the rural poor and those with special educational needs.  Low cost private schools are frequently cited as one solution to address the needs of the poorest children but the empirical evidence of their efficacy is incomplete[2]. Further investigations and experiments are needed.   

But limited access to education isn’t restricted to primary pupils. Potentially a much greater challenge is the growing number of secondary pupils as the impact of Education For All feeds through – currently there are 400 million 12 – 17-year-olds not in school across the world.  Secondary schools demand specialist teachers, appropriate curriculum for all (not just a highly academic curriculum designed for a small minority but vocational and technical subjects) which must be cost efficient – many current systems of secondary education are not.   Expansion of current systems will be insufficient to meet demand and we need alternative ways of offering quality cost efficient secondary provision at scale. Open Schooling, much advocated by the Commonwealth of Learning ( provides one possible model;  in Namibia the NAMCOL  ( the Namibian College of Open Learning) accommodates over 28,000 secondary students across the country. 

And pre-school.  There is an increasing body of evidence demonstrating  the long term impact of good quality early childhood education on children’s future educational achievements.  Across Sub Saharan Africa this education sector has begun to assume more importance in government policies. For example Ghana aims to provide two years of free and compulsory pre-primary education to all children from the age of 4 and enrolment is increasing rapidly. This requires appropriately skilled practitioners and teacher education programs are expanding to offer this age-group as an option within their provision. At the University of Education, Winneba educators are adapting materials for  teachers of this age group and recording examples of good practice to share with the community.  However across the region the majority of children remain excluded from pre-primary education. 

Higher education was greatly neglected by development agencies and in government plans for many years, but is now receiving attention once more.  In many countries the number of young people ( and not so young people) who aspire to study at university vastly exceeds the number of places. To take one example,  in Nigeria every year over a million young people pass the university entrance exam but they are competing for a mere 300,000 places.  More infrastructure and improved academic capacity are priorities, increasing the number of doctoral students  who can progress to become members of the Academy .  Makerere University in Uganda is implementing a novel scheme to mentor doctoral students to develop, support and retain academic talent.

My second, and no less important challenge,  is quality.  More children are attending school but are they learning?  Sadly there is much evidence that large cohorts of children in Grades 2 and 3 classes in many countries are non-readers, unable to read correctly even a single word in a paragraph despite two or more years in school.  This is unacceptable; without  core reading skills these children’s  chances of any form of academic success are extremely low.  Quality education demands trained skilled educators (in nurseries,  schools or universities) and  resources – books, ICT equipment and other artefacts.   Across each sector there is a shortage of quality teachers. Two key contributing factors are lack of access to high quality training and the  low status of the profession.  But there are encouraging shifts in policy and innovative projects. In Kenya[3] the government has indicated a move to make teaching a graduate profession,  and to stop primary teachers who become graduates moving to the secondary sector. This has huge potential to improve the status of primary teachers and for greater stability in school professional communities with implications for professional development and improved practices. Classroom-focussed in-service teacher education, facilitated by new technologies and Open Educational resources, is beginning to support schools in becoming learning communities, providing access to other communities of professionals to nurture and sustain improving practice whilst enabling teachers to develop their knowledge in their own professional context. Case studies from the TESSA project provide numerous emerging examples from across Africa.  In Mali, the Read-Learn-Lead[4] project  supporting  early reading instruction in national languages is showing promise in early grades; involving teachers, parents, carers and community tutors.  Children’s ability to correctly identify letters has vastly improved in project schools. If this progress can be sustained and extended there is much promise in this holistic localized approach.

The advent of Open Educational Resources (OER), free content which can be adapted for different contexts and reproduced without paying licence fees, offers tremendous potential across the continent. This gives access to global funds of knowledge but also facilitates contributions from Africans. The recent Paris Declaration was a marker in the recognition of OER as a tool for supporting education. Through the Declaration the international community committed  to fostering awareness and use of OER and facilitate enabling ICT environments for the production and use of OER. OER can play a critical role in professional education  programmes enabling more cost effective  and faster production of high quality materials.  At the University of Malawi few students have access to the prescribed textbooks and other materials, but staff have used OER to develop an elearning  Certificate in Midwifery Course that draws on the best global materials together with local case studies.  The ubiquitous mobile phone is increasingly allowing access to this content in remote rural areas and for learners who are unable to access more traditional forms of content.  OER are also opening up content for younger learners – the embryonic ‘African Storybook’ lead by OER Africa (  is an exciting example of how  digital technology and OER are  being harnessed to provide a rich resource bank of local stories to support early reading. 

But we mustn’t neglect structures –  curriculum frameworks, assessment models and the forms of control within education systems.  Curricula and assessment need to relate schooling to our learners’ experienced worlds, their families and local communities but also to recognize that new technologies enable learners to be part of the global community.  Assessment needs to support future learning and value achievement rather than focus on a limited academic knowledge. Young pupils need opportunities to learn in their mother tongue rather than in a second or third language.  School leaders need autonomy to distribute resources to best support their community of learners – pupils and teachers.  These are tremendous challenges but there are examples of change; in Uganda for example the government introduced local languages as the medium of instruction in primary schools in 2007.  

However  if these initiatives and projects are to have a real impact across the continent there is a need both for sharing  good practice, from some of the projects mentioned here and many others, and  for funders to take risks  to support further innovative initiatives which bring together practitioners and researchers from  different communities. Much of the most exciting work is happening at the intersection of traditional disciplines. Many might not be wholly successful but as in research or ‘start ups’ we need to pursue many  lines of activity  to learn which have most applicability and success in different contexts.  Initiatives such as WISE offer valuable spaces for such networking, collaboration and experimentation.  Africa needs new solutions to its education challenges, not merely an extension of existing systems to ensure that all children are able to exercise their right to a quality education in school and beyond.  What would you prioritise?

[1] UNESCO (2011) The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education,  EFA Global Monitoring Report, Paris, UNESCO

[2] Lewin, K & Little A. 2011. Access to education revisited: Equity, drop out and transitions to secondary school in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. International Journal of Educational Development 31(2011) 333-337

[3] Republic of Kenya (2012) Towards a Globally competitive Quality Education for Sustainable Development: Task Force Report,  Republic of Kenya

[4] Gove, A. and Cvelich, P. ( 2011) Early reading: Igniting Education for All. A report by the Early Grade learning community of Practice. Revised Edition. Research Triangle Park, NC: Research Triangle Institution.