How poverty of learning holds back Africa’s growth

A primary school classroom

Governments should prioritise the delivery of quality education to all. That includes looking into curriculums, teaching methods, staffing levels and capacity and institutional capacities to adequately develop the foundational skills of learners.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The World Bank cites learning poverty as one of the most intuitive indicators of the learning crisis.
  • Reading, writing, numeracy and socio-emotional skills are key building blocks for all the other educational outcomes. 
  • Governments should prioritise the delivery of quality education to all. That includes looking into curriculums, teaching methods, staffing levels and capacity and institutional capacities.

Imagine not being able to read a short, simple story yet you went to school. Sadly, this is the reality for many children in Africa.

The World Bank cites learning poverty as one of the most intuitive indicators of the learning crisis, which measures the share of children who cannot read a simple text with comprehension by age 10.

Reading, writing, numeracy and socio-emotional skills are key building blocks for all the other educational outcomes. 

Concerned by the slow pace towards meeting SDG 4 (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all), the World Bank, in 2019, announced a new operational global learning target: To at least halve the global learning poverty rate, to 27 per cent, by 2030. But the target requires the attention of governments and technical and funding agencies.

Widespread learning poverty predated Covid-19. In Africa, the pandemic worsened a dire situation. “The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update” report by development partners puts the Sub-Saharan Africa rate at an all-time high of 89 per cent.

It has increased by a third in low- and middle-income countries globally with 70 per cent of 10-year-olds unable to understand a simple written text.]

The longer schools were closed, the more children’s reading, writing, numeracy and socioemotional skills stalled. 

Without doubling efforts to increase access to quality education and improve learning outcomes, the SDG target of universal quality education for all by 2030 will be a pipe dream.

Free primary and secondary school education initiatives, especially in increasing enrollment rates, are not enough.

Africa’s competitiveness hinges partly on the strength of its human capital; the ability to tap into a stellar pool of skilled talent cannot be overstated.

Failure to change the damning status of learning poverty is negligence by stakeholders. Building more schools alone is far from enough to combat it.

Quality education

First, governments should prioritise the delivery of quality education to all. That includes looking into curriculums, teaching methods, staffing levels and capacity and institutional capacities to adequately develop the foundational skills of learners.

Teachers must also be supported—whether by career growth, adequate learning or teaching resources.

In this Digital Age, let’s urgently bridge the digital divide in education. As witnessed when schools closed due to the pandemic and learning shifted online, inequality soared as children from poor backgrounds struggled to access educational resources.

Collaboration is key. Communities must be involved, and demand quality education. Many parents are unaware of the dire learning poverty situation as they have placed their trust in overwhelmed schools and teachers.

Most hold the misplaced notion that their only headache is paying school fees.

It’s time leaders, governments, professionals and other stakeholders stepped forward and took the lead in this urgent action for the wellbeing of children and youth, our future, and our heritage.

Mr Ngugi is Africa regional director, ChildFund [email protected] @ChegeNgugi1

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