Low pupil achievement a growing concern

The next target is to address overcrowded classes, absent or unqualified teachers, poor or nonexistent materials, and curricula based around rote learning.


Over the past 15 years, Millennium Development Goal 2 has spurred efforts to achieve universal primary education. This drive has succeeded in getting more bums on benches, and the goal is close to being reached in many African countries. However, missed out in the aim of access is the quality of the schooling received, and low achievement is now a growing concern.

As Uganda’s Minister of Education, Jessica Alupo, put it: “We created a large pool of teachers. Now our job is to motivate them and raise the quality of what they do.”

The next target for governments, businesses and donors up to 2030, then, is to address the all-too-common scenario in Africa of overcrowded classes, absent or unqualified teachers, poor or nonexistent materials, and curricula based around rote learning rather than understanding.

There are many avenues by which this new focus on quality might be pursued, but one possibility garnering a lot of attention sees a strong role for ICTs and possibly a strong role for China.

Upgrading Africa’s teachers

The groundwork for a new educational angle got under way in May at the World Education Forum in South Korea. This was followed by a session on ICTs in education held in China and attended by around 30 African states.

The declarations and resolutions from these meetings will be adopted by the UN General Assembly as part of the new sustainable development goals.

Many African delegates in the recent round of deliberations were surprised − though perhaps pleased − to discover that their lessons in school transformation might be led by Chinese technology. 

Beijing’s strategy of influence across the continent aims to sprinkle African classrooms with Chinese technology, cash and expertise. This commitment has President Xi Jinping’s name on it and was announced by the Vice-Premier Liu Yandong, saying: “Dreams are realised through education. China is willing to actively promote innovative development combining ICT and education.” 

In a special session attended by a host of ministers from the continent meanwhile, China’s Vice-Minister of Education, Liu Limin, explained that “China is ready to strengthen exchange and dialogue” with African educators and promised an increased flow of experts to the continent. Liu also offered African states a roll-out of China’s homespun model for teacher development, which will shortly see its ten-millionth teacher trained and qualified by distance-learning technology.

In fact, China is already three years into piloting schemes in eight African countries in which devices such as phones and laptops are being used to retrain unqualified or underskilled teachers as well as improve initial teacher training.

Enabling teachers to raise consistency and training through these innovative means could be hugely beneficial to the quality of African education, and the ministers who met Liu were mostly enthusiastic about China’s initiative. However they also expressed concerns over the limits to China’s technology-led approach. For example, Anthony Nimely, Liberia’s deputy education minister, reported that teachers were “resistant to change”, and detected that the introduction of technology to training processes could exacerbate the digital divide within Africa.

Namibia’s education minister, Katrina Hanse-Himarwa, focused on challenges regarding infrastructure and motivation, saying: “When learners get low bandwidth and bad connections, it affects the willingness and the quality of their learning.”

Meanwhile, Jessica Alupo, Uganda’s education minister, pointed out the high costs of digital learning platforms and called for countries to pool their content and technology infrastructure across borders if such initiatives were to be successful.

Many of these policymakers were able to point out the broader opportunities and concerns associated with a technology-led approach to upgrading Africa’s education. However, few have a better sense of how the strategy might work in reality than the African schools already trying out some of China’s initiatives.

Abera Lankamo, Dean of Hawassa College, a teacher training school in Ethiopia, for instance, has upgraded the school’s training programme for educators from one year to three. Its graduates now leave with toolkits for innovative classroom methods such as pupil-centred learning, class teamwork skills, and project-based education.

However, Lankomo says that upgrading teacher training can only go so far, and points out that underlying challenges remain. “We can send out great teachers now, yet in many places the majority of girls won’t benefit,” he says. “They will drop out before secondary school to get married or do farm work.”

Installing new solutions

These deep challenges notwithstanding, innovative organisations − whether from China or elsewhere − stand to benefit if they can develop effective tech solutions to Africa’s educational shortcomings.

For example, Bridge International Academies, a low-cost private education chain from Kenya − which is now heading to Nigeria − educates 120,000 pupils through ICT-based management systems as well as rigorous control of classroom procedures.

Meanwhile, Rethink Education, a Cape Town-based digital content specialist that gives schools and pupils online support in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), is also doing well. The business charges a monthly R30 ($2.50) to learners or R300 ($25) to schools for them to access the interactive multimedia content. The platform has recorded 200,000 users accessing content since its launch in 2012 and the results have been promising. Learners have improved their scores by an average 39%, while schools report stronger engagement amongst pupils.

“We are showing that connected education is a value point for aspirational families, and I think learning products like ours are going to become a growing proportion of content served to mobiles in Africa,” says Doug Hoernle, Rethink Education’s founder. “The payment systems and networks will come to see education as a premium digital service”.

Another bold bet on education is being driven by the Global Learning XPRIZE, a competition to address literacy in sub-Saharan Africa using games and mobile technology. Funded to the tune of $15m by backers that include the likes of Elon Musk, Ratan Tata and Larry Page, this project has attracted a host of hi-tech companies from over 40 nations to develop Android-based solutions to Africa’s literacy and numeracy challenges.

There is a still a way to go for African countries to ensure universal primary education, but as concerns now move towards the issue of its quality, it seems that education might be another sector in which Africa could leapfrog the rest of the world.

Stephen Haggard

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