One objective of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was to ensure that all children entered primary school at an appropriate age and completed the full educational cycle. That is how the goal of universal primary education would have been achieved.
Fifteen years later, sub-Saharan African countries are close to enrolling all school-age children, but they have not met the target. While the region has made progress in keeping a greater number of children in school, one out of three children is likely to drop out before completion. Ensuring equal education for boys and girls was also part of the goal. Yet 33 million children did not attend school in 2012, 56% of whom were girls. This includes 5.5 million in Nigeria and more than a million in Ethiopia.
While progress for the region as a whole remains just below target, performances differed from country to country. In 2012, 10 countries, including Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia and Zambia, were able to get more than 90% of their school-age children into classrooms, the 2015 Africa MDG Report said. The other countries were Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Congo and Mauritius.
Rwanda made remarkable progress. With 97%, the country had the highest primary school enrolment rates on the continent in 2012. Girls’ enrolment (98%) exceeded boys’ (95%), while the percentage of children completing their primary school cycle stood at 73% — “a dramatic increase from 53% in 2008,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The completion rate for girls was 78% during the same period.
A combination of awareness campaigns and deliberate, targeted policies contributed to boosting enrolment numbers. Reducing or eliminating school fees in public institutions, making the school environment gender-sensitive (more accommodating to boys’ and girls’ specific needs) and providing food in impoverished areas also helped keep children at school. Yet progress is still slow in serving “hardest-to-reach” populations such as children with disabilities, children living in conflict-affected states, nomadic people and some ethnic minorities, said the MDG report.
More youth can read and write
Earlier this year UNESCO and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) called for strengthening and expanding education systems, including by specifically targeting those children who are the “hardest-to-reach.” On the other hand, education specialists fear that the target of getting all children to school is getting in the way of providing quality education. There is more to education than just getting boys and girls into classrooms, they say.
Looking beyond 2015, “one fundamental step for the education community is to refocus their energy on girls’ and boys’ learning and to move beyond the goal of just getting students in school,” says Rebecca Winthrop, the director of the Centre for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, a US think tank.
Nonetheless, getting a greater number of children in classrooms appears to have considerably improved literacy rates on the continent. While according to UNESCO, Africa remains the only continent where more than half of parents are not able to help their children with homework due to illiteracy, a growing proportion of people aged 15 to 24 are able to read and write, with the ability to understand a short simple statement on their everyday life, as literacy is defined.
Chad, Côte d’Ivoire and Niger were the only African countries in 2012 with youth literacy rates below 50%, while Algeria, Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, South Africa, Swaziland and Tunisia had 95% literacy rates, according to the MDGs report.
Overall, four in five young adults in 17 out of the 30 African countries for which data are available are now able to read and write.