After COVID-19, education in Africa will not be the same

June 16 marks the Day of the African Child. Today we honor those who participated or died in the Soweto uprising in South Africa in 1976 while demanding equal and quality education for all, and all those around the world who support the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Students from the Nyeri Primary School in Kenya going back home after school. April 2017 - GPE/Kelley Lynch

This post is the sixth in a blog series published in 2020 in the context of collaboration between the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), started in 2017.

On June 16, 1976 in Soweto, South Africa, approximately 10,000 students of color marched in a unified column, more than half a mile long, to protest about the poor quality of their education. They demanded the right to be taught in their native language.

Students gathered to peacefully demonstrate, but the crowd soon became intimidated when the police arrived and fired tear gas to disperse them.

We still do not know who gave the first command to shoot, but thanks to testimonials and photos, we know that children were turning and running in all directions, leaving some lying wounded or dead on the road. More than 100 people were killed and over 1,000 injured during the two-week protests.

To celebrate their courage and in memory of those killed, in 1991 the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) established the Day of the African Child.

This year’s theme reflects on ‘Access to a Child-Friendly Justice System in Africa’ inclusive of solidifying the universal rights of quality education for African children today and tomorrow.

A unique framework: The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child

Do you know that Africa is the only continent with a region-specific child rights instrument? The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) was adopted 30 years ago, precisely on July 1, 1990 ,and entered into force on November 29, 1999.

The Charter is a key tool for advancing children’s rights. While building on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the ACRWC highlights issues of special importance in the African context.

As explained by Dejo Olowu in his paper “…whereas the Convention generally makes it clear that children are independent subjects and have rights, the Charter stresses the need to include African cultural values and experiences in considering issues pertaining to the rights of the child in Africa.”

We recommend you read Article 11 of the Charter, which is entirely dedicated to the education of the African child and the full realization of this right by the states.

As of June 2019, 44 out of 55 member states of the AU have signed the Charter and 49 have ratified it. We hope that by the end of this year, all AU member states will have ratified this key continental framework, which means they will be formally bound by the terms of the Charter.

Too many African children are still denied an education

According to UNESCO, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of education exclusion globally.

Over one-fifth of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are out of school, followed by one-third of youth between the ages of 12 and 14.

In addition, nearly 60% of youth between the ages of 15 and 17 are not in school. The World Bank stated that 87% of children in sub-Saharan Africa are ‘learning poor’ and lack foundational skills they need for the 21st century and a dynamic labor market.

Girls have even more challenges ahead of them: Across the region, 9 million 6- to 11-year-old girls will be denied the opportunity to go to school, compared to 6 million boys, according to UNESCO data.

Their disadvantage starts early: 23% of girls are out of primary school compared to 19% of boys. By the time they become adolescents, the education exclusion rate for girls is 36% compared to 32% for boys.

Today, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over 250 million primary and secondary children are out of school in Africa. The education sector is heavily affected, with the closure of learning institutions in many African countries likely to negatively impact education quality.

The poor, particularly girls, in rural communities are most affected.

In order to obtain a comprehensive view of learning outcomes during this period, and to better support countries in the immediate, short and long term, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) engaged some of the most affected African countries in March 2020 to map the national situation in the education sector.

African governments and key education stakeholders have instituted measures to promote the continuity of education from home (e.g. online dissemination of virtual recorded course modules, use of mobile and smartphones, televisions and radios, etc.).

These strategies have been successful in some ways, but challenges remain as the poor marginalized children who neither have access to mobile phones or TV, or even radios for that matter, are excluded.

If these challenges are not addressed immediately, they can seriously affect the academic career of our students and in the long term, bring about serious social and economic implications.

Opportunity for a better future

The challenges that have risen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic should be used as an opportunity to press the rest button. Business as usual for the education system is not an option anymore. A “new normal” will have to be invented to improve learning outcomes.

Teachers will have to be trained and upskilled. Technology will have to be at the forefront of how we learn going forward. Curriculum will have to be revised to reflect local realities and classrooms may not necessarily be a physical building. Parents will have to be involved in the education and home schooling could be an opportunity.

Education will have to be more learner centered rather than teacher centered, and children will be encouraged to be more innovative in seeking knowledge; to be critical thinkers to be equipped with the necessary skills to prepare them for the future world of work outside of the classroom.

This is an opportune time for governments to invest more in education and to view education as an economic gain for any country, especially if built with gender outcomes in mind.

It is an opportune moment for all education actors to collectively come together and reshape the narrative of complimentary support towards education in Africa.

The positive returns in investing in educating a child is an open secret and we can no longer continue to ignore it.

As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Madiba’s prophesy opens doors for what is happening today.

A combination of COVID-19 and the current ongoing advocacy for equality for black lives and all lives is a testimony that change is inevitable.

Now is the dawn of a new beginning.