In many countries too many children fail to complete a full cycle of basic education. There are also too many children and youth who do not make the progress expected due to various exclusions, some of which are silent. These include over-age entry and progression, poor attendance, low achievement, disability, under-nutrition, HIV/AIDS orphanhood and the impact of migration.
These problems are particularly acute in Africa. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals are intended to shape international development through to 2030. Goal number 4 focuses on education. It sets the goal of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Progress was made in working towards the earlier Millennium Development Goals. But there’s still a need to accelerate movement towards providing universal access to education worldwide.
Why is this so challenging and why is it so challenging in Africa in particular? The problems are certainly very complex as reflected by the 10 targets associated with the education goal. How we advance further will be one of the main questions to be addressed by almost 200 delegates at an international conference in Ghana.
Major progress has indeed been made towards increasing access to education at all levels and increasing enrolment rates in schools. This is particularly true for women and girls. And basic literacy skills have improved tremendously.
But bolder efforts are necessary to make even greater strides for achieving universal education goals. For example, the world has achieved equality in primary education between girls and boys. But few countries have achieved this target at all levels of education.
How far Africa has come, and how far it has to go
The top three targets of the SDG education goal are that by 2030 countries must have introduced:
complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes for all girls and boys
access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education for all girls and boys, and
equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.
It is necessary to learn from what has been achieved so far and also from what has not worked. This highlights the need for rigorous evaluation and for education research. The International Conference on Education Research for Development in Africa provides a space in which to address the question of what role education research can play.
Among its themes are critical discussions about education for development in Africa, innovative practices in education and access and equity. The list of themes also includes gender and education, education quality and assessment, inclusive education and teachers and alternative basic education.
The conference will consider innovative practices in education. Finding better ways of improving digital literacy on the part of teachers and technology integration in schools may well hold the keys to making greater strides.
Other topics on the agenda include: STEM education, mathematics education, teacher training and development and donor roles and the politics of education in Africa.
Educating the next generation
The first conference was organised around the theme of “Harnessing Education Research for Evidence-Based Development”. It focussed mainly on Ghana but highlighted needs that must to be addressed more boldly across the continent. This included the wide attainment gap between high and low achievers. Also in focus was the urgent need to improve basic education for all and disparities between urban and rural areas.
This year’s conference marks the establishment of the first African Education Research Association outside South Africa. The latter will enable a focus for African scholars on the needs of the continent. The initiative is being linked to a new journal on education and development in Africa. This will provide a platform for nurturing the next generation of African scholars in this field.
This new platform responds to the need for an independent forum in which African voices, and scholars who work with African colleagues, can share evidence-based insights into educating the next generation. There is a need to find a new balance among stakeholders who shape public policy. Focus needs to shift to evidence and rational dialogue rather than sporadic responses to funding initiatives that have insufficient resources dedicated to research and evaluation. This is the only way in which long term impact can be achieved.
As the SDGs are adopted it is more important than ever that the locus of control of development is driven by African public intellectuals who can speak truth to power.