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Education We Want in Africa: My Experience from the Human Capital Africa Roundtable Discussion on Foundational Learning

by raphael dennis

Growing up in Tanzania, and having experienced Tanzania's public school system, I have always aspired to be involved in reshaping African education to make it safer, more inclusive and relevant to the needs of young people in the 21st century. 

In today’s fast-changing world, quality, safe and inclusive education is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ultimately shaping a better future for everyone. Yet, in Tanzania, as in most African countries, there are still many written and unwritten rules that prevent students from reaping the full benefits of their education, meaning that many increased investments in the education sector are wasted. I have observed first hand how the beautiful dreams of some of my peers were shattered either because they were not afforded the chance to go to school, or because they had to drop out due to the bullying and corporal punishments they experienced for not being able to read or write. In 2021, I traveled across seven regions of Tanzania and interviewed students to support Citizens 4 Change’s study on Tanzanian Students of Experiences of Safety and Inclusion in Schools, the results of which call for the urgent transformation of our education systems. 

Following a global summit on Transforming Education convened by the UN Secretary-General in September 2022, the African Union Commission committed to dedicate 2024 as the AU Year of Education, themed “Educate and Skill Africa for the 21st Century”. Ahead of launching this important year at the AU Heads of States Summit in February 2024, Human Capital Africa (HCA), in collaboration with UNICEF, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), and The Dangote Foundation, convened a Roundtable focused on prioritising foundational learning and addressing the learning crisis in Africa. This high-level Roundtable, graced by H.E Sahle-Work Zewde, President of Ethiopia, brought African education ministers, young people, and key decision makers from the public and private sectors, together in Addis Ababa from 12-13th February 2024. I was honoured to take part in these meaningful conversations as a UNICEF Youth Advocate actively working in the education sector.

The Roundtable was a unique opportunity to discuss the critical need to prioritise foundational learning ahead of the launch of the 2024 African Union Year of Education. Specifically, the Roundtable aimed to do two things:

  1. Deliver a roadmap of action for the Ministerial Coalition, focusing on foundational learning and educational reform

  2. Deliver a collective message to the African Union to highlight the urgency of addressing the learning crisis and influencing policy at the highest levels.

Prior to the Roundtable, UNICEF and Human Capital Africa convened a pre-session that brought together over 30 youth education champions from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, and Gambia. During this pre-session, we were briefed on the AU Year of Education and gaps in the foundational learning skills in Africa, after which we had the opportunity to develop our key messages. These were some of the shocking statistics that were presented, calling for coordinated and urgent actions to address  the learning crisis in Africa:

  • Four out of five children in Africa (nine out of 10 children in sub-saharan Africa) cannot read and understand a simple text by the age of 10. This is the highest learning poverty rate in the world!

  • Only 2% of education budgets in Eastern and Southern Africa goes to early childhood education.

  • Children with disabilities are 42% less likely to acquire foundational literacy and numeracy skills.

  • Children in emergencies and crisis-affected regions gain foundational literacy and numeracy skills six times slower than those not affected by crisis.

I was moved by the level of enthusiasm from like-minded young people from across the continent - young people who are not only demanding changes but are also leading actions in their communities to transform the education system. It is engagements like these that make me optimistic about the future of education in Africa. They also keep me motivated to continue my safe schools advocacy journey. When young people lead, relevant and long-lasting changes are guaranteed!

During the two-day event, we had a number of keynote speakers and panel discussions featuring the President of Ethiopia, Education Ministers from different African countries and other education practitioners from both public and private entities. I had the opportunity to speak on one of the most heated panels, joined by fellow youth education leaders from Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Gambia. The discussion was centred around young people’s perspectives on what needs to be changed to achieve Education We Want in Africa. Here were some of the key issues I highlighted:

  • To reap the full benefits of the education system, we need to start investing early! Currently only a small proportion of education investment goes to Early Childhood Education. From the research and experience, children who get the right attachment and stimulation from a young age are more likely to enter school with the social, emotional, and pre-academic skills needed for learning.

  • We must shift the focus from what we teach to how we teach, by integrating social-emotional learning in the mainstream education system! Too often, when we speak about foundational learning the focus has been on numeracy and literacy skills. Yet, for most African students, school is not only a place they go and get academic knowledge, but rather a place to be shielded from adversities happening at home and in the community - such as high levels of poverty and domestic abuse. Unfortunately, most of the schools are not prepared to meet the psychosocial support needs of these children, and as a result the education outcomes for these children are minimized. As this UNICEF and World Bank study suggests, no child can learn effectively when they are afraid or traumatized. Integrating social-emotional learning in the mainstream African education system will ensure that our schools provide a friendly and supportive learning environment for every child.

  • Young people are key partners in shaping the future of African Education. As the famous saying goes “nothing about youth without youth”. Consulting young people is not enough - we need to have seats at the decision making tables, and at the forefront of delivering results for transforming the African education system. With a lived experience of the current African education system, we know exactly what needs to be done, and we are already leading by example! In Tanzania for example, I am currently working with students and teachers in 16 schools to challenge harmful unwritten rules in their schools and promote safe and inclusive learning environments. Meaningfully engaging young people in transforming the African education system will result in relevant and sustainable changes.

One takeaway from the event is loud and clear - governments and partners need to invest more and invest better in education. This can be achieved by proactively tapping into the wisdom of young people to inform their change-making agendas.

While we are currently faced with disturbing statistics on the learning crisis in Africa, there is a promising future if we ACT NOW and make the right investments in our education sector. By 2030, young Africans are expected to make up 42% of the world’s youth and account for 75% of those under the age of 35 in Africa. By 2050, one in four people on the planet will be in Africa. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), such population growth on the continent means that by 2035, there will be more young Africans entering the workforce each year than in the rest of the world combined. This is the opportunity for prepared young Africans to contribute to the global workforce and drive global sustainable development.

Moving ahead, in this African Year of Education, I look forward to using my experience from this forum to continue leading the delivery of Safe Schools Project in Tanzania’s 16 schools. I am also thrilled to be joining UNICEF and partners in developing youth-focused advocacy messages ahead of the UN Summit of the Future, as well as moderating discussions to seed a national momentum toward legally banning the use of corporal punishments in Tanzanian schools.

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