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Global mobilisation required to save education systems in Africa

Sierra Leones Education Minister David Sengeh Centre
Sierra Leones Education Minister David Sengeh Centre

By: Kingsley Ighobor

For David Moinina Sengeh, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education and Chief Innovation Officer, the upcoming Transforming Education Summit (TES) is an opportunity to mobilise a movement of global citizens who will hold leaders accountable for their commitments to education.

Convened by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, the summit is scheduled for 19 September 2022, at the outset of the high-level week of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Mr. Sengeh and the UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed co-chair the Summit Advisory Committee.
Preceding the summit, events on Mobilization and Solutions on Friday 16 and Saturday 17 September, respectively, will help anchor one of the biggest-ever gatherings of world leaders on education.

“It is a moment that is bringing us all together — world leaders, civil society, students, young people—to reimagine education, to think about how we address our greatest challenges through education,” Mr. Sengeh tells Africa Renewal.
At a pre-summit in Paris last June, Mr. Guterres identified three crises facing many education systems: these are equity, quality and relevance: –

· On equity, 258 million children, the majority girls, are out of school;
· On quality, half of 10-year-old students in low and middle-income countries cannot read basic text; and
· On relevance, current education systems are outdated.

The health and the learning crises are something the world should not joke with.
Meeting SDG targets off track
Mr. Guterres is also concerned that countries may not meet the targets for SDG 4, which is to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Based on “assessments of their [countries] commitments to SDG 4, by their own benchmarks, we are not going to meet the targets,” Mr. Sengeh maintains, adding that Mr. Guterres decided “to invite world leaders to say to them, ‘look, hold on a minute: something needs to happen differently.’”

Progress toward SDG 4 is “badly off track,” echoes a conceptual framework for the event, and mentions that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the crisis.

The pandemic’s impact on learning has been severe. While global lockdowns severely affected economies, healthcare systems, lives and livelihoods, Mr. Sengeh says a stiff challenge, which was not anticipated, was a learning crisis.
“At its peak, about 1.2 billion – 1.6 billion children were out of school globally. For some countries, it took up to two years to return to school,” he laments. “What used to happen [in education] is no longer working for most people.”

Education in Africa
What is happening to education in Africa is best told through many grim statistics. Some 100 million children are out of school on the continent, the highest level ever. And girls are 10 per cent less likely to complete lower secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa.

While 1 in 5 children and adolescents of primary and secondary school age live in sub-Saharan Africa, the region is home to a third of those who cannot read.

UNICEF reports that, before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 80 per cent of African children in school could neither read, understand or respond to questions related to a 150-word piece, which they should do by age 10. That figure is likely higher because of the pandemic.

“It is a double whammy for kids,” Mr. Sengeh says. “The health and the learning crises are something the world should not joke with.”

Momentum for the summit began earlier in the year with consultations in about 100 countries on commitments to transform education, public engagement, and how countries’ actions could roll along five tracks.
Five action tracks

The first of the five action tracks—or priority areas—is having inclusive, equitable, safe, and healthy schools, which refers to building an inclusive society and ensuring everyone’s right to education. UNESCO’s Futures of Education report reinforces that the gaps in access today stem from yesterday’s exclusion and oppression.
The second action track focuses on learning and skills for life, work, and sustainable development, which aims for learning that is relevant for today’s workforce and prepares children for the future.

UNICEF describes such skills as “basic literacy and numeracy; transferable skills including life skills and socioemotional skills; digital skills; job-specific skills; and entrepreneurial skills.”

The third track pertains to teachers, teaching and the teaching profession and addresses teacher shortages, qualifications and emerging professional development needs. The Futures of Education report highlights that teachers in sub-Saharan Africa lack basic qualifications and training.

The fourth action track is digital learning and transformation. While the pandemic accentuated the need for digital learning, low connectivity in poor countries and digital divides persist.

“In at least 1 in 3 low-income countries with available data, more than 85 per cent of young people are off-track in the secondary-level, digital, and job-specific skills attainment,” notes a July report by UNICEF and its partners.
Globally two-thirds of the 1.3 billion school-age learners lack internet access at home, and girls and women are “less likely than boys and men in their households to have digital skills, access to computers and the internet to benefit equally from remote learning.”

The fifth action track is education financing. With high population growth (half of the African population will be 25 and under by 2025) dampening the impact of increases in education spending in developing countries, “reaching the SDG 4 targets will require significantly increased financial resources,” notes the UNICEF report.
Reforms in Sierra Leone

In Africa, Sierra Leone’s education policy dubbed “Radical Inclusion in Schools” seems tailored to these action tracks; initiating and implementing the policy provide for Mr. Sengeh valuable experience with which he is now canvasing global support for education systems.

For example, allowing pregnant teenagers to return to the classroom and abolishing corporal punishment have fostered inclusion. More than 2,000 pregnant girls who might have dropped out of school sat for the 2020 West African Senior School Certificate Examination.

Yet, Mr. Sengeh concedes that transforming education is not often a smooth-sailing affair, asserting on the need to gain the support of the President, Cabinet colleagues and civil society.

If there is one piece of advice for fellow education ministers it is for them to internalize that “The path of least resistance is not often the optimal choice. Just getting people to agree when you want to transform society does not often work… You have to build movements, coalitions.”

A supportive coalition or movement will inoculate reforms against future setbacks, such as another political administration reversing course, he believes.

At the summit, Mr. Sengeh hopes to join world leaders, Mr. Guterres, young people and others in laying the foundation for a global coalition that will reimagine and transform education.
For more information on COVID-19, visit www.un.org/coronavirus
Africa Renewal

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