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14 Jun 2018
Lily Neyestani-Hailu and Laetitia Houlmann

Rethinking Alternative Education to Achieve Learning for All in Sub-Saharan Africa

This blog post is authored by Lily Neyestani-Hailu, UNESCO Regional Education Policy & Planning Cluster Lead, and Laetitia Houlmann, UNESCO Dakar Education Consultant. It makes the case for rethinking both the purpose of education and the organization of learning in light of SDG4-Education 2030, in particular through the promotion of alternative and innovative education models.

Recent UIS data linking learning outcomes with school exposure reveals that of the 387 million primary school-age children worldwide who cannot read proficiently, some two-thirds are attending school. The same goes for 137 million out of the 230 million adolescents of lower secondary school age who are not learning. This dramatic crisis of learning leads to a number of questions: How can the quality of teaching and learning be improved? How to ensure that all learners acquire knowledge, skills and values relevant to the world of work, their personal development and social and civic life? What alternative and innovative learning models to formal schooling could be considered?

Is formal schooling failing us?

In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where high demographic growth has resulted in growing school-aged populations and a demographic bulge of youth, governments are struggling and often failing to mobilize sufficient resources and capacity to provide formal education to all. Innovative and transformative measures are needed. According to recent figures, there are more than 60 million out-of-school children and youth of primary and lower secondary school age in SSA, which represents over one quarter of the population. Almost nine out of ten children between the ages of about 6 and 14 in SSA will be incapable of reading proficiently by the time they are of age to complete primary and lower secondary education. If current trends continue, this crisis will affect in the future about 202 million children and adolescents of primary and lower secondary school age.

Alarmingly, national education sector analyses (ESA) in the region are increasingly attributing the high out-of-school and dropout rates to a lack of interest on the part of parents and students in schooling.  In Mali[i], 57% of parents cited disinterest in school for non-attendance by their children. In Chad 43% of families explained lack of attendance or dropout by dissatisfaction with content delivered, the values transmitted or the economic/professional/employment prospects. In an increasing number of countries, families prefer sending their children to non-formal education programmes that they perceive more relevant to their needs.

Non-formal education: a long-standing concept but (so far) somehow difficult to implement

Alternative forms of learning, most notably non-formal education (NFE), have been developed in most cases to address specific gaps, focusing on out-of-school children, youth and adults who either did not have access to school or dropped out early with an emphasis on specific vulnerable groups including women and girls and ethnic minorities. Moreover, while it is encouraging to note that a majority of countries now recognize the importance of NFE in their policies and strategies[ii], it is still largely viewed as second-chance education. This is also reflected in the typically very low budget allocations to expanding such programmes, with most African governments investing not more than 1% of their total education budget into informal and non-formal education development, as cited in the Continental Education Strategy for Africa.

In addition, qualifications acquired through non-formal education are generally neither certified nor recognized by the relevant national educational authorities. In the absence of certification, transition from non-formal to formal education (if desirable), or to the formal sector of the economy is unlikely to occur. Lack of recognition has a negative impact not only on the social value associated with the learning and skills that alternative models may provide, but also on mobility between countries and regions.

The understanding of the concept of lifelong learning (LLL) which encapsulates formal, non-formal and informal education and training at all ages and level, has also long been limited to adult education with a focus on basic literacy and numeracy. This narrow and very targeted implementation of the LLL approach and NFE programmes at country level, and the focus of a number of donors since the EFA era on school education rather than on the broader education agenda, have not allowed for much investment and attention to them.

SDG4-Education 2030: new vision, old practices?

The innovative and comprehensive nature of SDG4-Education 2030, with its shift towards a holistic vision of education and learning beyond schooling, is promising. By focusing not only on lifelong but also on life-wide learning, SDG4 recognizes the need to develop more relevant and diversified education programmes, including alternative education (AE) models in order to provide learning opportunities for all. The ED2030 Framework for Action explicitly calls for “the provision of multiple and flexible learning pathways and entry points and re-entry points at all ages and all educational levels, strengthened links between formal and non-formal structures”. In order to ensure this flexible learning between and within formal and non-formal settings and to recognize the true value of AE options, not only for specific vulnerable groups, but as a valued and certified option for all, equivalency and bridging programmes need to not only be established but also accredited by States.

This new vision, however, is still far from being translated into policy and practice. Despite extensive discourse around the innovative vision of SDG4-ED2030 including the promotion of AE models, its integration into national education planning tends to still focus on schooling and formal education, as it was the case with previous agendas.

Most stakeholders are overseeing a crucial aspect: quality learning for all is not reachable through formal schooling only, especially in SSA. And at the same time while countries are increasingly open and interested in introducing and developing new modes and means of learning and skills acquisition, models to draw upon are scarce and business as usual remains the easiest way forward.

Rethinking education in Africa

SDG4-Education 2030 is a unique opportunity to rethink both the purpose of education and the organization and assessment of learning, through adopting a model of business as un-usual. While formal schools need to be made more relevant, diverse alternative models also need to be developed. Strengthened partnerships, more flexible and inclusive learning systems, and innovative use of technologies could be part of this package.

Rethinking education and reshaping learning systems at country level requires deep reflection through participatory and frank policy dialogue about education transformation. This forward-looking exercise must include among others reflection around the types of governance systems, of learning spaces, of learning assessment, and of innovations and reforms that will be required.

To accompany countries in this process, the Education systems’ strengthening Task Team (SYSTeam) of the Regional Coordination Group on SDG4-Education 2030 in West and Central Africa is developing Country Guidelines to support the integration of SDG4-ED2030 into national education planning, to be complemented by a database of alternative education examples to share with countries.


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[i] Education sector analysis of Mali will be published in 2018

[ii] Based on the analysis of different education sector plans and policies in West Africa, for instance in Burkina Faso and Senegal

Photo credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

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3 Responses

  1. John Clegg

    But truly bizarre that language of instruction is not mentioned at all as a barrier to children’s learning. It is a major factor, possibly the largest causative factor in school underachievement in sub-Saharan Africa. How could it possibly have been overlooked?

  2. RBlyth

    An interesting article, although I think the lack of interest in schooling is not ‘alarming’ as suggested but an inevitable result of the focus on tests and qualifications being the goal of education systems in SSA, instead of delivering learning -the idea of quality education needs to ask the question – ‘education for what?’ .

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