It is time for a learning revolution in Africa

By John Fallon, CEO, Pearson Plc

It is time for a learning revolution in Africa

Africa’s educational challenges are not fundamentally different from those of the rest of the world, although they are more basic and urgent – and they can, at times, feel more overwhelming.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution revealed that more than half of the world’s out-of-school primary-aged children live in Sub-Saharan Africa and only a third of African children ever reach secondary school, let alone university. One in every two of those who make it to the classroom still reach adolescence unable to read, write, or perform basic numeracy tasks.

The universal power of education to transform lives for the better feels more urgent in Africa, too. Better education, of which literacy and numeracy are the bedrock, will be fundamental to sustaining growth and prosperity across the continent over the next decade, just as it surely will be throughout the rest of the world. For example, despite high unemployment rates on the continent, employers often struggle to fill vacancies. In a PWC survey of 1,330 global CEOs, over half report concerns about finding the right talent to reach business targets. Vast skills gaps are holding back job creation and growth in many African economies; there is a disconnect between what is being taught in schools and the knowledge and skills young people need to become engaged and productive citizens.

Just as countries as diverse as the US and China are shifting from measuring progress in education by inputs – such as teacher/pupil ratios, textbooks or laptops per child or total spending levels – to focusing on learning outcomes, so Africa needs to do the same. To put it crudely, universal basic education says every child counts but, even if we achieve the millennium development goal by 2015 (of every primary age child in school), half the children won’t actually be able to count – and that won’t change unless we set ourselves a different, higher standard. And yet, a global data gap on what improves learning outcomes continues to hold back progress on education equity and quality. In the future, all education interventions, from teacher training to innovative classroom technologies and mentoring programmes, must be backed up by evidence on what actually works.

That’s why the publication, this week in New York, of the report by the Learning Metrics Task Force is so important. (Full disclosure: the task force is co-chaired by Pearson, although, it is convened by UNESCO and the Brookings Institute, and it brings together 30 member organisations, and working groups comprised of 186 technical experts. More than 1700 people from 118 countries have been consulted on its work over the last 18 months.) For the first time, it will set out a global framework for learning, a common standard of the skills and knowledge that learners, at each and every stage of their lives, will need to prosper. It will enable us all to measure progress in education much more effectively around the world, to open up the black box of effective education, making it much easier for us all to learn from, and share with, each other.

Most importantly, it should provide some universal learning goals around which the global community – government, business and civil society – can rally. It can provide a guiding light by which we cast aside our differences and work together to overcome Africa’s learning crisis, to deliver improved results with limited resources.

Swift and collaborative action – between business, government, and civil society – is required; and it is beginning to happen. I know from my own company’s experiences that sustained collaboration between employers, governments, and civil society, powered by technological innovation, is nibbling at the edges of previously intractable learning problems. It’s time, now, to take such initiatives to scale and fully transform the region’s education landscape. It’s time for a learning revolution in Africa. And the report by the Learning Metrics Task Force could be what kicks it off. We’ll certainly be playing our part to make the achievement of those universal learning outcomes a reality.

Editor’s Note:

This article was first published on This is Africa, and is reproduced with permission.

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