Africa’s Youth Deserve a Flexible Secondary Education System

This piece first ran in How We Made It in Africa in April 2020.

Young people, especially those in secondary education, often move in and out of school, the labour market, and domestic responsibilities before making a full transition to work. This reality makes completion of secondary school difficult given the rigid education systems currently in place in most African countries.

Across the continent, the youth population continues to rise, resulting in an increase in the number of young people enrolling in secondary education. UNESCO estimates an additional 46 million young people will enter secondary school by 2030 – over and above the 60 million currently enrolled. This increased demand, coupled with the changing nature of work, which includes digitisation and automation, has created an urgency for education reform.

This is especially important as secondary education will be the point at which most young people in Africa transition from education into the labour market.

To ease the transition between education and employment and respond to the lived reality of young women and men across the African continent, flexible education systems that allow young people to move in and out of formal and non-formal education and, between vocational and general education, is needed. This kind of education system will better accommodate their needs and help them to build relevant literacy, numeracy and twenty-first century skills.

As the COVID-19 pandemic closes schools globally and places additional pressure on African economies and education systems, the demand for new approaches is more pressing than ever; demonstrating the need for flexible learning pathways guided by national qualifications frameworks and skills strategies. If developed effectively, these map available training and qualifications to create pathways between levels and types of education and the labour market.

A modular approach that allows a flexible education journey can be effective in enabling young people to develop a portfolio of skills and credentials valued by the labour market. This approach recognises the capabilities of those who develop skills in the workplace and also promotes labour mobility.

Those out of school, an estimated 65 million in sub-Saharan Africa, according to UNESCO, could also benefit from a more flexible approach.

There are several factors that may prevent or cause disruption to schooling: late entry, repetition of grades, and early dropout, as well as unrest, conflict or migration. In addition, young women face further obstacles can inhibit their ability to complete school, such as early pregnancy, marriage, parents’ reluctance to send their daughters to boarding school or to make a sometimes-dangerous walk to school. Many are also under pressure to help support household needs.

Social, economic and cultural circumstances, which often reinforce each other, make it difficult for young people to re-enter the education system, which is further compounded due to fees, time-away, lost learning and stigmatisation.

To ensure young people across the continent achieve their potential and contribute to economic expansion (or even transformation), secondary education systems, including technical streams, should make education more accessible, including to those who are out of school, to reflect the competing pressures young people face.

Public and private education providers can offer multiple pathways for out-of-school youth and for those who need to leave and re-enter the system or access alternative training programs, which are recognised and accredited by the education system, including:

  • Accelerated and second-chance opportunities that not only bring students back into formal education but also provide recognised accreditation and certification of their skills by employers.
  • Flexible and modular learning – public or employer driven – which reflect labour market needs and promote accessible lifelong learning.
  • Pathways between secondary and technical education, which allow students to re-enter or access different levels of school and bundle certification and accreditation of skills over time. This supports increased access to, and mobility within, the labour market.
  • Education technology and innovations that help bring the promise of secondary education to more young people, particularly those who are hard to reach, and help reduce growing digital divides.
  • Public-private models that are adaptive and responsive to youth needs. The private sector is a critical partner in delivering innovative and adaptive secondary education that provides flexibility and better links young people to work opportunities.

As education ministries develop, test and embed new approaches to increase second chance and alternative pathways, more young people will have the opportunity to acquire critical skills and transition to employment achieving their potential in a way that reflects their lived experience.

Across the African continent, there are numerous successful models enabling young people to move in and out of the education system, advancing their knowledge, gaining relevant skills and fulfilling family and other responsibilities.

For example, in Lesotho and Malawi, “School in a bag” ensures that disadvantaged young people, especially those affected by HIV/AIDS, remain in school. The “School in a Bag” includes supplies and self-study guides for English and math, designed to encourage independent learning for young people for whom school attendance is often erratic. The model is supplemented by a buddy system, which offers peer support for learning as well as catch-up clubs that provide further learning opportunities with flexible hours. The program reduced drop-out rates and improved numeracy skills as well as self-esteem.

In Morocco, Education Media Company developed five online guides to different national curriculum subjects, covering both course content and exam preparation. It has been viewed 10 million times over five years, as young people are able to access flexible, virtual content. Morocco, like other North African education systems, has worked to improve learning outcomes through the integration of digital technology in education as well as open educational resources for both students and teachers.

Embedding these and other successful models ensures they can reach scale and become institutionalised to support greater numbers of young people. Utilising national skills strategies and national qualifications frameworks can help harmonise and create structure to clarify pathways for formal and non-formal education and training programs. This ensures the availability of training programs, which are recognised and accredited by public and private providers.

By ensuring flexibility in the secondary education system, more young African’s will have access to the skills they need to respond to an increasingly digital, automated, and connected world. This will lead to improved productivity, particularly in the informal sector where most young people will work, and contribute to broad-based economic growth.

Steve Cumming is the Lead, Strategic Operations at Mastercard Foundation.