Secondary Education Isn’t Always Accessible for Youth Across Africa

This article was first published in The Africa Report on April 22, 2020.

Much progress has been made in expanding primary education in Africa since 2000. A key tool has been to remove primary and, more recently, secondary school fees. But more needs to be done to ensure secondary education is supported all the way through.

Currently, 17 governments, representing 37% of Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries, offer some form of fee-free lower and/or upper secondary education.

The policies vary widely; from seven years of fee-free secondary education in Chad to two years of fee-free secondary education in Zambia.

Fee-free policies

A recent example is the roll out of the fee-free Senior High School program in Ghana in 2017 which is credited with a surge in enrolments – from 308,000 in 2016 to 430,000 in 2018. Fee-free policies are important in removing critical barriers to secondary education for the most disadvantaged.

However, more can be done to ensure fee-free secondary education policies reach low-income households, rural populations, girls and other excluded groups because of the many additional costs and barriers to secondary education.

Because poor and marginalized students often do not complete primary education, they do not benefit from policies offering fee-free lower secondary education.

Across a wide range of countries, including Nigeria, Uganda and Mozambique, less than half of children from disadvantaged backgrounds complete primary education.

Fee-free, but with hidden costs

While secondary school is increasingly ‘fee free’ across the continent, attending still comes at a cost. These include non-tuition costs such as uniforms, boarding fees, learning materials, school feeding programs, and transportation (disadvantaged students are more likely to live in rural areas, further away from schools and transport links.Therefore fee-free education is not always reaching those who need it most: low income households, rural populations, girls, and other marginalized groups. Without additional support for marginalized children, fee-free policies benefit families in better circumstances.

Secondary school: employment gateway

Addressing these challenges is critical because, increasingly, secondary school is not only a platform for tertiary education, but the employment gateway for over 90% of Africa’s youth.

Secondary education must be where all students can become equipped with the skills needed to do well in the 21st century workplace: literacy, numeracy and digital skills, the ability to communicate, critical thinking, financial literacy and more

Governments can make fee-free secondary education work for all children through financing policies that are based on equity (accounting for various forms of disadvantage) and not equality (treating all students the same).

Bursaries, scholarships, and cash transfers

Policy makers can target the most disadvantaged students, and in particular girls, with bursaries, scholarships, or cash transfers to enable them to meet secondary school costs such as uniforms, transport, and boarding. Such policies work.

Cash transfers targeted to low-income households, girls, young people with disabilities and other marginalized groups have been shown to be effective.

For example, in Malawi, a study by the World Bank found that giving just $5 per month to a girl’s household increased the likelihood that she would be in school after one year by ten percentage points.

An assessment of Camfed’s (also known as the Campaign for Female Education) programme in Tanzania found that targeted bursaries reduced dropout and improved learning for marginalized girls when combined with interventions to improve teaching in schools. Girls with these scholarships were more likely to stay in school and almost tripled their scores on learning assessments.

There are several examples of governments in sub-Saharan Africa that have introduced strategies that have made attempts to level the playing field for disadvantaged youth by targeting resources towards those who need them most.

Recent evidence regarding cash transfers and capitation grants to schools from a conflict-affected area in South Sudan has shown a major impact. All female students in the final four grades of primary (P5–P8) and in all grades of secondary school (S1–S4) are eligible for cash transfers, which are transferred directly to the students at school.

The value of the cash transfer received in 2016 was $25. Schools that received capitation grants combined with targeted cash transfers increased their female enrollment share by approximately two percent. The combination of cash transfers and capitation grants also seemed to lead to an increase in average school attendance, despite the prevalence of ongoing conflict.

Education: success for everyone

Looking ahead, the World Bank’s Human Capital Plan for Africa (2019) suggests that, ‘GDP per worker could be 2.5 times higher if everyone reached the benchmark of complete education and full health.”

It also states that at the individual level, each additional year of schooling raises individual earnings by 11% for males and 14% for females, the highest returns to education of any region globally.

Benefits go beyond the individual.

The provision of secondary education that is truly accessible to all – rather than just for a few — will increase productivity, particularly in the informal sector where most of the youth will find work for the foreseeable future.

Bottom line: Broad-based productivity gains will contribute to higher economic prosperity across Africa’s entire economy. This is vital if African countries are going to realize the promise of its growing youth population.

Editor’s Note: This is a viewpoint from chapter 6 of the Secondary Education in Africa report, which explores how equity-based financing is needed to reach students from disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure no one is left behind. Read background paper on Equitable Financing of Secondary Education in Sub Saharan Africa.

Kimberly Kerr is the Education Lead, Programs at Mastercard Foundation.

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