The Impact of COVID-19 on Secondary Education in Africa

Amplifying Challenges and Opening New Opportunities

This first ran on AllAfrica.com.

Economic contraction in Africa due to COVID-19 threatens the ability of countries to invest in secondary education at a time when demand is increasing. This will have long term impacts on the future of Africa’s labour force, which requires the skills gained through high quality and relevant secondary education to adapt to a digitized, fast changing, and globalized world of work.

Demand for secondary education is increasing due to rising primary completion rates and a growing youth population.  Great progress has been made in ensuring access to primary education for the continent’s youth, faster than many other developing regions at comparable starting points.  By 2018, gross enrollment rates in primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa had increased to almost 99 percent.[1]  While growth in primary completion rates has stalled in recent years, rising enrollment and completion rates over the last decade have placed increasing pressure on secondary education systems.  According to one estimate, just one in three adolescents in Sub-Saharan Africa who qualify for secondary school can currently be accommodated due to limited places.[2]

At the same time, Africa’s youth population is expected to nearly double to 456 million by 2050. By 2075, almost half of the world’s young people will be African.[3]  These demographic shifts will have profound effects on secondary education systems. Modelling done by the Education Commission for Mastercard Foundation’s report, Secondary Education in Africa: Preparing Youth for the Future of Work, suggests that  demand for secondary education is expected to nearly double between now and 2030, from 60 million students enrolled today, to 106 million students by 2030.[4]  In Rwanda, for example, one study projects that the secondary school population will almost double in the next four years, while enrollment rates in primary school are expected to remain static.[5]

Economic growth in Africa is set to decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  This will have significant implications for the financing of secondary education, at a moment when far greater investment is needed.   Recent estimates by the World Bank indicate that economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to decline by 5.1 percent in 2020, compared to economic growth rates of 2.4 percent in 2019, marking the first recession in the region in 25 years.[6]   The impact of COVID-19 on economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa beyond 2020 is unknown, but many forecasters project a long-term negative impact for the continent.  It is worthy to note that access to primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa expanded during a period of high economic growth driven in part by a boom in commodity prices.  Lower projected economic growth would reduce tax revenues available for education in coming years and accelerate competition for scarce resources with other vital sectors such as health and infrastructure.

The disadvantaged are likely to suffer the most.  The loss of livelihoods and economic downturn mean many families won’t be able to afford to send their children to secondary school.  Household contributions account for a significant share of secondary education costs.  An analysis across 16 Sub-Saharan African countries shows that household contributions make up 49 percent and 44 percent respectively of the cost of lower and upper secondary education, in comparison with 30 percent for primary education[7]. Remittances, an important source of family household spending on education, are also set to decline by almost 20 percent.[8]  Students from poorer households often face increased pressure to work to support the household.  Reliance on this income makes returning to school after the crisis more difficult.  Permanent dropout is more likely for older students at the secondary and tertiary levels after long periods of disengagement with the education system.

A student participates in a business class in Tanzania as part of a Mastercard Foundation partnership with Fundación Paraguaya.

Shifts to distance learning have also exposed deep equity gaps which could intensify post-pandemic.  Digital solutions are predicated on access to devices and connectivity, as well as foundational digital literacy on the part of the teacher, parent and student.  While digital access and literacy is growing, distance learning approaches that rely exclusively on technology risk exacerbating inequality, as well-off students connect and continue their studies, and more vulnerable students fall behind.

Many African governments are implementing multi-faceted strategies to ensure the continuity of learning including, radio, television, newspaper and the distribution of printed learning materials.  Even the most prevalent forms of distance learning such as radio or television often do not reach the poorest or most remote students.  Assessments of the effectiveness of this approach at the end of the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone and Liberia revealed that poor network coverage in rural areas and limited access to radio, and sometimes batteries, did not ensure equitable access.[9][10][11]  Even then, distance learning approaches require engaged parents to help support student learning, which can be challenging due to illiteracy or the imperative of focusing on livelihoods to ensure survival.

The COVID-19 pandemic could also roll back enrollment and learning gains in education.  School closures have significant effects on learning, in a context where learning was already in crisis.  In a post-Ebola assessment of the education sector in Liberia, school administrators, teachers and students were all asked  about the effects of school closures; the most common response among all three groups was that no learning occurred despite the roll-out of educational radio programs in the country.[12]  The postponement of examinations or poor performance on examinations due to learning gaps can also affect transition rates to and within secondary education systems, as high stakes examinations often serve as a winnowing device to limit access to higher levels of the education system.

Young women and young people living with disabilities are particularly vulnerable.  Evidence from prior pandemics indicate girls are at risk of early pregnancy.  During the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, UNICEF estimates 11,000 girls dropped out of school due to pregnancy.[13]  Girls also take on greater responsibility for household duties as well as caring responsibilities, particularly if a family member becomes sick.  Students with disabilities are also at risk of falling further behind or leaving the education system entirely.  The availability of adaptive devices for distance learning and the availability of teachers with specialized skills to guide their learning are a concern.

While exposing deep rifts, COVID-19 provides an opportune moment to rethink secondary education systems and to ‘build back better’ with greater innovation. 

  • The pandemic highlights the benefits of integrating more flexible approaches to the delivery of education at scale.  Secondary education systems in Africa and in many parts of the world tend to be one size fits all.  The factors that often prevent young people from following a linear path through the education system, such as the need to seek work and support their families, will be exacerbated by the pandemic.  This crisis provides impetus to deliver accelerated learning programs through national education systems to allow students whose learning was disrupted during COVID-19 to make up for lost time, as well as offer alternative approaches for vulnerable students who are not able to move through education systems in a linear manner.  Further, this crisis fast tracks the potential for the development of innovative approaches, including self-paced modular learning as well as new learning modalities delivered through education technology.
  • The pandemic provides a powerful use-case for the more intentional integration of technology into education systems. Technology has diverse applications in the education sector, from digitizing course materials and teaching aides, to remote tutoring, to more advanced tailored learning that provides rapid assessment and feedback.  Necessity has removed some of the fear and resistance to the integration of technology in education systems. Post-pandemic, there will be much to learn about what did and didn’t work, such as the important role of the teacher in facilitating distance learning and maintaining a personalized connection with students and inequities in access due to enabling infrastructure such as internet connectivity and electricity, access to devices and digital literacy.  However, as with many other fields such as health care and e-commerce, the changes brought about by the pandemic are likely to alter the education system permanently.
  • The pandemic has reinforced, not diluted, the important role teachers play in facilitating distance learning, providing individualized feedback, maintaining connection with students and providing ongoing psycho-social support.  It has also underlined gaps in teacher preparation, access to digital devices and connectivity.  Post-pandemic, efforts to train teachers to integrate technology into their teaching and learning practices and to provide ongoing post-crisis psychosocial support will go a long way towards making current practice more interactive and engaging for students, while improving capacity to deliver education remotely in the event of future emergencies and in the creation of more modular approaches to secondary education delivery.
  • The pandemic has highlighted an important role for public-private partnerships that go beyond delivery of education.  Around the world, innovative consortiums, with diverse stakeholders, have come together to address the challenge of COVID-19.  These include governments, publishers, education professionals, technology providers and telecom network operators.  For example, in collaboration with government, telecommunications companies have reduced or eliminated fees to access educational content (as in Rwanda[14]) or expanded bandwidth (as in China[15]).  Radio and TV stations have supported the development and broadcast of educational programming.  One positive side benefit to this collaboration – as put by a recent World Economic Forum blog – would be that “corporations are awakening to the strategic imperative of an educated populace.”[16]  Greater interest on the part of the private sector in stronger learning outcomes, and the development and delivery of curricula could serve to strengthen the quality and relevance of secondary education.

A teacher during a virtual science class in Rwanda as part of the Mastercard Foundation Leaders in Teaching program.

As the pandemic continues to evolve, impacting education and economic recovery across Africa, let’s use the opportunity to minimize the negative implications on education systems, particularly for the most disadvantaged, and integrate the best of these responses into our long-term vision for secondary education systems in Africa, to ensure youth develop the skills they will need for a fast-changing future.


Join us on August 13, 3:00 p.m. EAT/12:00 p.m. GMT, alongside various stakeholders in the education sector, as we discuss and share learnings from our report, Secondary Education in Africa: Preparing Youth for the Future of Work. As secondary education is increasingly the platform to work for Africa’s youth, now is the time to rethink secondary education systems to ensure youth have the skills and competencies needed to succeed.

A teacher in class in Rwanda as part of the Mastercard Foundation Leaders in Teaching program.

You can join the conversation through the livestream link available on the Mastercard Foundation Facebook page, accessible here.

Keynote remarks will be made by His Excellency President Paul Kagame, Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia, and Ms. Reeta Roy, President and CEO of Mastercard Foundation. A panel discussion will follow bringing together education ministers and youth, with interventions from secondary education experts, teachers, and event participants.

The Secondary Education in Africa report is available here.


[1] Enrollment by level of education, Sub-Saharan Africa (SDG Region) based on most recent available data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UNESCO-UIS) database, accessed January 17, 2020.

[2] AAI, “State of Education in Africa Report 2015” (New York: The Africa-American Institute, 2015), cited in Asma Zubairi and Pauline Rose, “Equitable Financing of Secondary Education in Sub Saharan Africa, Secondary Education in Africa Background Report” (Toronto: Mastercard Foundation, February 2019).

[3] Population data taken from most recent available data from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) Population Division database, accessed August 2019.

[4] Education Commission, “Costing and Financing Secondary Education,” Background Memo on Education Commission Costing Model Results Developed for MasterCard Foundation Report, Secondary Education in Africa: Preparing Youth for the Future of Work (New York: The Education Commission, May 2019).

[5] Laterite, “Proof of concept: using Markov Chains to predict trends in Rwanda’s school system” (Rwanda: Laterite, March 2020).

[6] World Bank, “Assessing the Economic Impact of COVID-19 and Policy Responses on Sub-Saharan Africa,” Africa’s Pulse, April 2020 (Vol 1).

[7] UNESCO-UIS, “Financing Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Meeting the Challenges of Expansion, Equity and Quality” (Montreal: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2011).

[8] World Bank, “World Bank Predicts Sharpest Decline of Remittances in Recent History” Press Release: April 22, 2020.

[9] Poon, Linda, “Now this is an example of truly educational radio,” NPR: February 18, 2015.

[10] Powers, Shawn & Kaliope Azzi-Huck, “The Impact of Ebola on Education in Sierra Leone,”  Education for Global Development: World Bank Blogs, May 4, 2016.

[11] Jalloh, Yanoh & Godin, Rachel & Raschid, Mucktarr, “Evaluating the Impact of Ebola on Tertiary Education in Sierra Leone,” Professors Without Borders, 2018.

[12] “Assessment of the Effect of Ebola on Education in Libera,” Liberia Education Cluster, February 2015.

[13] Mason, Harriet, “A second change at schooling for pregnant teenagers in Ebola-affected Sierra Leone,” UNICEF, April 28, 2016.

[14] Mbonyinshuti, Jean d’Amour, “Telecom companies provide free access to online learning,” University World News, April 1, 2020.

[15]“How is China ensuring learning when classes are disrupted by coronavirus?” UNESCO, February 19, 2020.

[16] Tam, Gloria and Diana El-Azar, “3 ways the coronavirus pandemic could reshape education,” World Economic Forum Blog, March 13, 2020.

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