How a humble village school poses a big threat to Africa's dreams of greatness

Strange, but many parts of Africa don't think much of secondary education. Burkina Faso has just 26% of students in secondary schools. Kenya has 60%.

ERIC Njue, 22, completed his secondary education in 2012, but did not make the minimum grade required for university. Since then he has been at home in a little hamlet in Meru, eastern Kenya, taking life easy.

His father, Fabian, who cuts a gaunt figure, has asthma contracted from years of inhaling dust while crushing rocks at a nearby quarry, and for which he earned a pittance. But somehow—mainly through sheer will, he managed to see Njue and a younger daughter through a secondary education punctuated by numerous interruptions due to a lack of fees.

Fabian’s hope was that on account of secondary education, his two children would get good jobs  and relieve the burden of living he shares with his wife, who is also ailing. Their two older boys’ education came unstuck at the primary school rung. The Kenyan government had yet to introduce universal primary education, and consequently their attendance of classes was too fleeting to get strong grades. They now survive on menial jobs, making too little to support even their own families. 

‘Too young to grow old on a farm’

Stung by this outcome, Fabian made sure their siblings would at least complete secondary school. Now reliant on well wishers for medication, he can hardly hide his disappointment that his “investment” has not paid off. 

Eric is reluctant to help out on the family patch of land because he feels he is too educated, and “too young to grow old on the farm”—a view echoed by many African youths, who deem agriculture old school. To compound matters, his sister fell pregnant immediately after school completion, and now cohabits with her unknown companion.  

Fabian’s anguish is shared by numerous parents in African villages, where for many sending their older children to secondary school represents a huge undertaking, given they are more strong bodied for the farm, or for other work that has more immediate benefits. 

When the gamble does not pay off, a frequent outcome, it leads to an acute sense of wasted money. If it does come off—in the form of employment—it fuels a huge sense of pride. 

This kind of contradiction may have fuelled the ambivalence that informs the findings of a new survey by the pollster Gallup, which shows that Africans retain deep mixed feelings about secondary schools, despite a number of studies showing that such education at the very least doubles the odds of being employed full-time.

Endless contradiction

Of the 31 countries Gallup polled, most residents were agreed that secondary schools in their area had excellent teachers and prepared people to work. A majority however also felt that these schools did not have enough resources, and crucially, were too expensive.

The study showed the striking differences that outline the scale of the challenge facing the continent’s policy makers as they attempt to turn around a dire situation with regards to secondary school enrolment. 

 Of all the respondent countries, Burkina Faso and Kenya had the most complaints that secondary schools were too expensive, even if those polled also thought these institutions were beneficial. In Africa, enrolment rates are, among other factors, a product of history and policy choice—and this was apparent in contrasting enrolment rates. Burkina Faso has only 26% of students enrolled in secondary schools, compared with nearly 60% in Kenya, according to Unicef data

Uganda in 2007 led other sub-Saharan countries in introducing universal secondary school education. But interestingly, 68% of Ugandans still felt what was on offer was too expensive, and a similar proportion that the schools were not beneficial.  

Rwandan respondents—eight in every 10— held the highest belief in the benefits of secondary school education, but only a third of eligible students were enrolled. Liberia and Sierra Leone, other post-conflict countries, were not convinced of the benefits of secondary schools, and also, interestingly, did not think such education was costly. But they have contrasting enrolment rates—45% and 28% respectively.

Rich opportunities

Ethiopians found secondary education significantly affordable, but have only a 37% enrolment rate. Tunisia, Morocco and Nigeria also said high school costs were fair, but while the two north African countries had enrolment rates above 70%, Nigeria (44%) came in much lower. 

Clearly, the challenge is in crafting a continent-wide strategy that takes in the country-specific factors and attitudes. And the country that will create a prestigious and well-regarded secondary school education sector, could find itself cashing in big time as African families that can afford it, and disillusioned by the home offerings, send students there.

By contrast, though, many African countries continue to record impressive primary school enrolment rates—well over 100% in many cases—but even for those with impressive scores, access to secondary school education has remained a major challenge. One study found that the average enrolment rate remained under 30%, compared with rates above 95% in the West. 

key report by the World Bank, which in 2008 wrapped up its key five-year Secondary Education in Africa project, found that less than one in four eligible African youth enter senior secondary education, while technical and vocational education took up less than 10% of secondary enrolment.  

Urban rich do well

Where available, secondary education benefits the richer urban population, while leaving out groups such as girls. If they manage to navigate these early hurdles, families then find that secondary school fees are unaffordable—up to six times the cost of primary school, despite most African countries having some form of subsidy in place. 

Resources are also often wasted, while teachers are expensive in countries such as Kenya or underpaid, leading to an exodus to other countries. 

Due to such low enrollment, the outlook is the denial of crucial skills to Africa’s growing labour market, which has in recent years become more sophisticated with the continent’s technological leap, calling into question the sustainability of the much-vaunted regional economy. ( Read: Forget GDP growth and oil wells, Africa’s real fortune lies in the knowledge economy—here’s proof)

The impact on poverty rates is also real. In 2012, Gallup in  a survey of 38 African countries found that 62% of adults with a secondary school education were living on less than two dollars a day. When adults had only a basic primary school education, this rose to 85%.

To steal a march on fixing the situation, the issue of standards will have to be addressed, analysts say. African student performance on international tests is lower than all other regions, their governments are perennially cash-strapped after spending the bulk of their money on primary education, while curricula are often outdated. Even in high-cost private schools, which has 13% of all students in sub-Saharan Africa, quality is often low. 

Liberia’s embarrassment

Liberia was last year in the global spotlight after all 25,000 students failed their university entrance exam. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf later said 1,800 would be admitted, paradoxically blaming higher admissions standards. 

In Tanzania, over 60% of students also failed secondary school exams in 2013, with analysts blaming an acute shortage of teachers, learning materials and facilities, in addition to haphazard curriculum changes. Instead of addressing this, authorities lowered the pass mark. 

Education in Africa is a sector that is politically sensitive and famously resistant to reform, but for the benefits of economic growth to trickle down, an overhaul is needed. 

The World Bank recommends plugging the acute lack of resources—donor aid to secondary education has dipped—through public-private partnerships, while using these resources efficiently. 

A significant chunk of the proceeds from the region’s economic boom must be reinvested in secondary education to create opportunities in rapidly changing economic structures. Finally, existing policies—and mental models—must be rethought.

Only a wholesale change will convince communities of the benefits of secondary education, and make parents like Fabian feel vindicated in their sacrifices.  

Twitter: @LMAfrican

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