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Tackling the Python: EFA in East Africa, and Beyond

By Joshua Muskin, Aga Khan Foundation.

Joshua Muskin

I had the opportunity a year ago to participate in a meeting of the Ministers of Education from East Africa on issues the countries face in reaching the 2015 EFA goals in East Africa.  A largely “closed” session – I was one of the few NGO representatives. I found a particularly high level of candour as the Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and other leaders characterized the regions’ problems and the exciting vision and profound commitment of these leaders to “tackle the python” of low education participation and attainment to lead the education revolution of their respective and collective countries.  The meeting yielded a few highlights and significant conclusions for me.

First, I was very pleased to hear the representative of the EFA Commission react with full seriousness to the proposal of the Minister of Education of Somalia that his nation be exonerated from reaching universal basic education by 2015, given the country’s most extraordinary circumstances.  With no desire to undermine the legitimacy of EFA’s crucial goal, I worry that its pursuit in many countries (not just Somalia), especially in the race to 2015, may have the perverse effect of lowering not just quality (the reality in many countries) but even access. Virtually every person who intervened during the meeting’s first day lamented the poor quality of education as a tragic counterpoint to considerable national investments in access.  I argue below that, contrary to what appears to be common wisdom, investments in quality will instead have a positive impact on access, even financially. To close the current point, I offer a simple question: What do we as an international community conclude to do when we get to the end of 2015 and find a large number of countries’ still not having attained EFA?  Do we postpone again the deep and crucial investments in quality, adding another 10, 15 or even, this time, 20 years so that these countries can at last grasp this holy grail?  Such a decision seems improbable, but the rhetoric from the meeting and more broadly does not seem particularly sympathetic to a different conclusion.

A python

As indicated, the second point derives from the first, and I propose it purposefully as a hypothesis that aims to provoke.  Most basically, I suggest that we as countries, donors and partners handicap ourselves seriously in our pursuit of EFA by remaining so completely and narrowly faithful to the conventional school model.  Both during the meeting and in the respective policies of the many national and international education stakeholders, it is common to express great ambition, insight and foresight in expressing new and noble expectations of the graduates our schools must produce.  Yet, as a rule, we remain bound to the conventional school model, which I characterize most starkly as determining success based on testing accumulated information in our national examinations rather than on performance in life and livelihood.  If societies need independent, flexible, creative thinkers and actors, why are we not testing for that, for, as a corollary, we will not teach that until it is measured and validated by official assessment systems.  Bluntly, our examinations system hold all other efforts to reform education hostage.

Basically, I contend what many before me have asserted: we have chosen in the formal school model the most expensive, least efficient model of basic education.  At the meeting, the Minister of Education from Rwanda demonstrated how, by making more rational choices and involving a full range of stakeholders (i.e., not following blithely donor mandates for education reform), it is possible to build more schools more quickly and much less expensively.  I wish to submit that we can, and indeed must, think in the same way about the “soft” sides of education systems, including curriculum, teacher recruitment and training, school management, pedagogy, assessment, texts, community roles, etc.  Just as a very simple illustration, what might we expect the differences in students’ learning to be between the NGO-operated slum school with a non-government sanctioned teacher but just 20 children in a classroom and the government school and teacher in a class with 120 students?  I saw more learning in the former, even with a much less experienced, less qualified teacher.

As the Permanent Secretary from Uganda asked, how do we ensure a sufficiently complete, appropriate, quality education also for the child who will leave school upon the completion of primary school, if she reaches that far?  Must we have education systems that routinely, and deliberately as policy, succeed only with the (usually) minority of students who make it all the way through, or at least to, higher education?  And even this elite group typically dissatisfies because they often prove unable to perform effectively in the workplace, and certainly only very rarely as job creators, as another minister stated.

The irony is that, by fashioning a basic education, whether formal or nonformal, that focuses purposefully and pedagogically on preparing children for livelihoods and lifestyles in their home communities, it is possible to achieve crucial gains in most of the areas raised by the meetings’ participants:

  1. More students will learn better, achieving greater academic results because they will not just learn 2+2 as an abstract notion but they will have learned it in practice, observing it, manipulating it, exploring it, etc. as phenomena with which they are familiar and about which they care.
  2. As a consequence, more students will remain longer in the formal education system, and they will not only be learning their lessons but they will be learning how to employ what they learn in “real life.”
  3. Teachers will be happier, feeling more productive and proud of the accomplishments of their students.
  4. School access will increase, for at least two reasons: (i) more students (with their parents) will be keen to enrol and remain longer in school, perceiving that school is useful even if the child will not reach tertiary, or even secondary, school but, instead, will remain in the village; and (ii) fewer students will drop out or fail as they master their academic lessons better, thus increasing numbers through retention and progression to the next levels.
  5. Even with greater enrolments, and the need for more teachers and even classrooms, it is highly possible that the costs of education will change little, because of the serious gains in efficiency, lowering the numbers of repeaters and dropouts.
  6. Also, the social gains of more, more highly and better educated graduates should be palpable, as should economic development, individual prosperity and tax revenues to pay for education and with less social and economic wastage due to illness, low productivity, etc.
  7. Related, we can expect (and I have seen in at least a few countries), students as early as primary school will have greater appreciation of their personal aptitudes, aspirations and options, seeking happily, with a strong sense of purpose and in greater numbers to pursue professional/vocational training and nonformal education options rather than remaining in the formal schooling track.
  8. This will include greater productivity even for those who leave the system, whom we will increasingly no longer dub “failures” but whom we will have equipped both intellectually and personally to pursue alternative education and training options as legitimate, effective gateways to productive, socially engaged citizenship.

While the EFA and MDG documents are clear on the point, I routinely find it necessary to utter as a reminder that it is “education for all,” not “schooling for all.”  We need to diversify and proliferate the nature and number of alternative education delivery systems, models and content to succeed for and with all of our children.

I am convinced that we all know and believe this, at least in large part.  But, we need to “wrestle the python” to make a true difference.  Specifically, much as the Minister from Rwanda explained with the country’s school construction plan, we need to confront the pressures of convention, of society, of politics, of donors and others to come to non-conventional conclusions, not always reverting to the classic school model.  Furthermore, all stakeholders – states, communities, educators, civil society, donors, etc. – must be on board to make this happen, and not just as policy and plans but, especially, as actual practice.  Even if re-worked, such as with a competence-based approach to curriculum and instruction, the prospects of different outcomes risk being minimal if the overall formal school framework remains universal and intact.

Joshua Muskin is a Senior Programme Officer, Education, for the Aga Khan Foundation. Email:

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0 Response

  1. Mike

    I am first-hand familiar with basic schooling in East Africa. And elsewhere. Certainly the focus on every child participating tends to damage the quality and – of greater importance – the enjoyment of education. Certainly the conventional school model isn’t the complete answer. Certainly some NGOs are doing great things (although the state rather than civil society is ultimately responsible). Certainly the examination system in unconvivial. But how on earth could focussing “… purposefully and pedagogically on preparing children for livelihoods and lifestyles in their home communities” be the answer – or even a step in the right direction? That isn’t ‘education’, that’s ‘training’. And the coming generations deserve far far better than that. Education should escape the thralldom of the labour market. Otherwise it is the python that is tackling us.

  2. thank you for your comment, mike. i would refer you back especially to the numbered points in my posting. perhaps my ultimate aim got lost in the phrase you cite about preparing kids for their home communities. it is not my intention to exclude their also being prepared for life beyond the community. but i believe firmly, and have seen, that an education that builds from the local setting both (i) yields greater learning and (ii) results in more parents’ enrolling their children in school and in keeping them longer. thus, the argument is that schooling based on local livelihoods and lifestyles provides a much more solid foundation and opportunities to stay or to move beyond.

    1. Mike

      Thanks Joshua and, yes, I do get what you’re saying. But my belief is that education shouldn’t be regarded as preparation but as valuable and enjoyable in itself. Once it’s planned and perceived as a ‘solid foundation’ then that which it’s seen as a foundation for comes to dominate what it is. Last night I adjudicated a really stimulating debate between teams of secondary students. Some may mistakenly regard such activities as preparing youngsters to become lawyers or to shine at interviews or to be able to put ‘debating’ on their CVs. But they, and I, and I believe the audience too, regarded the event as a pleasant and thought-prevoking educational achievement in itself. So by all means build from the local as well as the wider setting, but please ensure that what is constructed is ‘education’ rather than ‘workplace preparation’ and ‘self-justifying’ rather than ‘preparation’.

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