Building The Basics: Why We Must Reimagine Secondary Education

Foundational skills, which include literacy, numeracy, and fluency in the language of instruction, are the building blocks for lifelong learning. Literacy skills in particular are essential for everyday life and contribute to improve livelihoods and expand opportunities. However, given the low levels of learning at primary school in most African education systems, young people are leaving the primary school system without adequately developing their foundational skills. Secondary education can play a significant role in ensuring young people develop these core skills through remedial support.

Now is the time to rethink, rebuild, and reimagine secondary education to equip young people with the skills they need to succeed.

The numbers are concerning: Across Africa 105 million children and youth were out-of-school before the pandemic and 460 million are estimated to be out of school since. According to UNESCO, 773 million young people and adults lack basic literacy skills globally. Disruptions to learning caused by COVID-19 induced school closures are disproportionately impacting non-literate young people, as well as marginalized and vulnerable students, who are at greater risk of falling further behind. The pandemic not only threatens to reverse progress made over the last decade in increasing school enrollment but has also intensified pre-existing gaps in African education systems. It has also magnified the disparities in access to learning opportunities for young people to develop skills they need to succeed in work and life.

Despite the challenges, the pandemic has sparked innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Education technology or ‘EdTech’ enables young people whose education has been disrupted by the pandemic to continue learning. It has also created flexible pathways in education by offering new mechanisms to support learning. For example, through blended approaches to learning with online course material and in-class instruction, education technology maximizes teacher time and provides personalized content delivery.

The acceleration of digitization across the continent highlights, among many other skillsets, the growing importance of digital literacy for effective employment and entrepreneurship. COVID-19 has catalyzed these advances, placing a premium on skills that help young people harness the potential of technology to access work opportunities and connect to markets. Digital skills not only enhance young people’s productivity but can also support higher economic growth. But young people need opportunities to acquire and develop these skills.

Incorporating digital skills development across the curriculum in secondary education should be a critical part of the teaching and learning process. Yet hardware constraints and teachers limited capacity to use technology hold back digital skills development in Africa’s secondary schools.  The Mastercard Foundation’s Secondary Education in Africa: Preparing Youth for the Future of Work report  offers key insights on how education systems can adapt to change, integrate new technology, and ensure young people have the skills, competencies, and knowledge they need to succeed in the changing world of work. The report outlines three recommended actions to develop digital literacy by:

  • strengthening teachers’ capacity to integrate digital technology across the curriculum.
  • increasing opportunities for students to use digital technology in timetabled lessons and co-curricular and extracurricular clubs.
  • continuing to invest in hardware and training of school staff to maintain hardware and software.

As we begin to rebuild our post-pandemic world, we must prioritize education recovery plans and ensure equitable access to high-quality and relevant secondary education. To seize this opportunity, we must address educational inequalities in access and centre the needs of young people for a more resilient and responsive recovery. And it starts with building the basics. Because without the building blocks of literacy, numeracy, language— and now digital skills— it will be challenging to develop more advance and essential skills, such as 21st century skills, STEM skills, technical and vocational skills, entrepreneurship skills, and work readiness skills. Acquiring these core skills will improve and sustain the livelihoods of young people in the 21st century and beyond.