COVID-19 and the future of Secondary Education in Africa

This first ran on May 14, 2020 in Africa on the Rise.

The global spread of COVID-19 has been unprecedented in scale and magnitude. This has led governments around the world to institute sweeping restrictive measures including the closure of schools, ban on public gatherings, and outright lockdowns. In many African countries, these measures have shown early signs of limiting what could be a widespread battle with the virus. On the other hand, they have formed the basis of exposing inadequacies within the education sector.

According to UNICEF, 188 countries have instructed school closures, affecting 1.5 billion learners around the world. For many advanced countries, the transition to online learning was seamless. In Ghana, this process has been far more complex. At the secondary level, schools and students were ill-prepared for this switch to e-learning. Amid widespread challenges like infrastructure deficit, unstable electricity supply, students’ lack of digital skills, and cut-throat data costs, the most vulnerable students are hit the hardest. These challenges are by no means unique to Ghana. If there is one lesson I hope African policymakers will learn from the current disruption to education, it is that issues around digital literacy and equity in education can no longer be ignored.

To many people familiar with the state of education across sub-Saharan Africa, these challenges are not surprising. In my first and second blog posts, I highlighted the need for greater digital literacy to prepare young people for jobs of the future. Today, it has become evident that these skills are even more pressing than I previously thought. COVID-19 has shown that secondary schools do not have the right systems to support teachers and students outside the school environment. The problems I have observed are multifaceted and involve a myriad of stakeholders but offer a unique opportunity to transform education for the aftermath of COVID-19.

With the increasing use of distance learning, primarily through e-learning platforms, tackling the digital divide is important now more than ever. Schools, teachers and students have been inadequately prepared for this switch to distance learning. In some cases, students lack the right information technology tools, or the requisite skills required to support learning. Teachers on the other hand, lack the training to teach effectively in an online environment. The increasing use of radio and television have helped bridge this divide but have not addressed the issues faced by students who do not have these devices at home. This is further compounded by exorbitant prices charged for data and widespread connectivity issues in both urban and rural areas. As economic activity stalls, the pressure on parents to meet these challenges will be enormous. For young people living in rural areas, refugee camps, and those living with a disability, these new channels of education have worsened their existing disadvantage.

The use of digital tools in schools must become a core part of the educational experience going forward and a means through which policymakers address imminent challenges around access, quality, and relevance of secondary education in Africa. There is an opportunity for public-private partnerships that foster the design of these tools to support different demographics of youth. Through these partnerships, countries can develop their digital infrastructure, train the right teachers, and transform curriculums to deliver education for the 21st century.

In the coming months, I am excited to join other young people and the Mastercard Foundation in launching the Secondary Education in Africa: Preparing Youth for the Future of Work report. This seminal report uses a multi-stakeholder approach to make recommendations across four themes; Preparing Youth for the Future of Work, Ensuring Relevant Knowledge and Skills, Meeting the needs of Out-of-School Youth and Displaced Populations, and Designing Systems to Foster Improved Learning. During this COVID-19 crisis, it has become evident that the needs of education across sub-Saharan Africa is much greater and requires multi-stakeholder collaboration to holistically solve these challenges. If this is an area of interest to you, visit https://mastercardfdn.org/research/secondary-education-in-africa/ to read more about Mastercard Foundation’s work on secondary education.

Joseph Opoku is a Mastercard Foundation Youth Ambassador.