At the dawn of independence, incoming African leaders were quick to prioritize education on their development agendas. Attaining universal primary education, they maintained, would help postindependence Africa lift itself out of abject poverty.
As governments began to build schools and post teachers even to the farthest corners of the continent, with help from religious organizations and other partners, children began to fill the classrooms and basic education was under way.
Africa’s current primary school enrolment rate is above 80% on average, with the continent recording some of the biggest increases in elementary school enrolment globally in the last few decades, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is tasked with coordinating international cooperation in education, science, culture and communication. More children in Africa are going to school than ever before.
Yet despite the successes in primary school enrolment, inequalities and inefficiencies remain in this critical sector.
According to the African Union (AU), the recent expansion in enrolments “masks huge disparities and system dysfunctionalities and inefficiencies” in education subsectors such as preprimary, technical, vocational and informal education, which are severely underdeveloped.
It is widely accepted that most of Africa’s education and training programs suffer from low-quality teaching and learning, as well as inequalities and exclusion at all levels. Even with a substantial increase in the number of children with access to basic education, a large number still remain out of school.
A newly released report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Income Inequality Trends in sub-Saharan Africa: Divergence, Determinants and Consequences, identifies the unequal distribution of essential facilities, such as schools, as one the drivers of wide income disparities.
Ayodele Odusola, the lead editor of the report and UNDP’s chief economist, makes the following point: “Quality education is key to social mobility and can thus help reduce poverty, although it may not necessarily reduce [income] inequality.”
To address education inequality, he says, governments must invest heavily in child and youth development through appropriate education and health policies and programmes.