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What does it mean to be educated as an African?

Analysis: ALAN TAIT
EDUCATION is a hot topic all over the world, and nowhere more so than in Africa where education systems can be areas of contestation and where reports can see-saw from ‘inspirational’ to ‘despairing’.
According to research carried out by UNESCO, some 43-million school-aged children in sub-Saharan Africa are still outside the formal education system and of the children who do receive schooling, 42 percent leave school early. As many as 10 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa never make it to secondary school.
At the World Education Forum held in Dakar, Senegal, in 2000, 44 African governments were among the 164 who pledged to provide quality basic education to all – from children to adults.
By 2015, none of the six main goals were fully met but the political will to make a difference was apparent in many countries, and progress was made in all.
The goals were to:
1.    Expand early childhood care and education;
2.    Achieve universal primary education;
3.    Ensure equal access to learning and life skills for youth and adults;
4.    Achieve a 50 percent reduction in levels of adult literacy;
5.    Achieve gender parity and equality; and
6.    Improve the quality of education and ensure measurable learning outcomes for all.
Sub-Saharan Africa stood out for being the region where countries have allocated the largest share of government expenditure to education – an average of 18.4 percent – compared to East Asia and the Pacific (17.5 percent) and South and West Asia at 12.6 percent.
The distribution of the education budgets are particularly interesting. In Botswana, 44 percent of the budget is spent on higher education. In Namibia, 41 percent is spent on primary education, in Zimbabwe, primary education accounts for 53 percent.
In Liberia the budget is more equally spread, with 29 percent going to both primary and secondary education. Countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe did not provide UNESCO with a breakdown.
One of the less easily-measured results of the emphasis on learning that the education goals inspired has been a renewed determination to find solutions that work for the multi-dimensional and multi-cultural African education environment.
At Pearson, our 50 year experience as a learning solutions provider to over 30 countries in Africa has given us a unique insight into some of the challenges highlighted by the UNESCO big data reviews. While we are doing what we can to contribute to solving those big picture challenges, it is the small data that really inspires us. A child who learns to read under a tree is still learning to read, and we have learned the value of celebrating each and every success.
The UNESCO 2015 EFA report was encouraging in that it placed Zambia in a more favourable situation than the average Sub-Saharan country. The primary completion rate is up to 94 percent and gender parity has been totally achieved. Concerns still lie, however, in the quality of learning, with a drop in teacher salaries and an increased pupil-teacher ratio in government schools. The ratio is as high as 65:1 in some areas, but this can also be viewed as an indication of the hunger for learning among so many children.
That does not mean that we are complacent. In order to meet the needs of our communities, we need to stay ahead of the curve. We have always been inspired by the way in which Africa is able to leapfrog ahead. We know that the continent of Africa is the world’s fastest growing region in terms of internet connectivity. We know that the talent is here but in order to unlock it, we must be ready to take different approaches to improving education.
It is with this in mind that we are pleased that we are no longer seen as just a textbook provider. Our world-class contributions to the measurement and evaluation of both teachers and the programmes that they teach are meeting some of the most pressing challenges facing our continent today. Our e-learning platforms are making it easier for lifelong learning to become a reality. And yes, of course, we do still publish really great textbooks!
As we partner with governments, state-owned enterprises the private sector and institutions, we get a clearer understanding of what matters in all of the countries where we work. Our agents and distributors are key in this process, acting both as our ears and our voices on the ground.
We are inspired by what lies ahead in 2016. This year will see the inaugural Pearson Africa Education Week – a space for learners, educators and policy makers to come together to solidify the importance of quality education for the African child.
Our social media platforms are providing the inspiration, encouragement and practical skills that are a vital part of our user-centric approach. We know we don’t have all the answers, but the huge advances we have seen in the past 50 years make us confident that the future is bright and we are excited to be a part of it.
The author is Executive Director-Sales for Pearson South Africa.