Africa: Universal Primary Education Is Not Enough


"We need to put the child student where she belongs, at the centre of the learning process, where she can harness her skills and look forward to a prosperous adulthood," says Sir Fazle Hasan Abed

Across the developing world, more children are enrolled in formal education than ever before. We have made significant progress in reaching the second of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, that of universal primary education. But while efforts are still laudably focused on getting children into school, we need to start addressing the issue of quality in education – especially in Africa, with its massive youth bulge. The question we need to be asking is this: Are children from all walks of life receiving an education that allows them to achieve their full potential in the 21st century knowledge society?

Unfortunately, in poor countries the answer is usually no. Colonial legacies, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, have hindered the way formal education shapes the minds of children. To use one example, children will often get higher marks by writing sentences exactly like the ones that appear in the textbooks, rather than learning to articulate thoughts of their own. And little consideration is given to concepts such as early childhood development or social emotional learning, which foster curiosity and self-confidence in children. These are the next frontiers in educational development and are no less important – indeed, they are arguably more important – in the developing world than in the West.

Rote memorization is still used as the main pedagogical method in much of sub-Saharan Africa. This deprives children of the capacity for critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The latter are vital, for they allow the most vulnerable to lift themselves out of poverty by getting in touch with their own latent ingenuity. Instead, we have an absence of joy from the classroom, as children from poor backgrounds find so much of what they "learn" in school to be irrelevant in their daily lives.

I believe we can reform public education systems in developing countries and replace these outdated approaches – and that we can do so in a cost-effective manner, while still adhering to the principle of "access for all". When it comes to educating the next generation of global youth, access and quality need not be mutually exclusive. Lessons can be drawn from my native Bangladesh.

The non-formal primary education model of BRAC, the development organization that I founded in Bangladesh in 1972, has already reached over 9.5 million students from poor backgrounds, making it the world's largest private, secular education provider. Using a government-approved curriculum, we transition students left behind by formal education systems – due to poverty, displacement, discrimination or all of the above – into state schools. BRAC's one-room primary and pre-primary learning centres, numbering 38,000 as of December 2011, are hubs for innovative learning techniques. The cost inBangladesh? A mere $32 per student per year. Students finish the five-year curriculum in four years, and on average their graduation rate is 10 percent higher than in the formal public school system.

This is not rocket science. To provide cost-effective, relevant education, we need to make the most of local human resources – the community. Our BRAC teachers are married women, usually in their 20s, from the villages in which they teach. We give them a two-week intensive course that teaches them what child-centric leaning is all about. "Don't teach the students to think like you," we tell them. "Instead, teach them to think for themselves."

For example, at the end of the first year, even while they are still learning to construct basic sentences, the students get an assignment: Write about your mother. The resulting "essays" might not contain the most elegant prose you'll ever read, but at this stage of learning, it's the first step toward fostering the type of creative thinking and problem solving that leads to an enterprising mindset. Their potential unleashed, such students are more likely to spot and seize the opportunities their parents never had, giving them a chance to navigate their way out of the clutches of systemic poverty.

The key is making the child an active participant in his or her own education, and in our experience, it works – and not just in Bangladesh. With the support of the Ugandan government, similar "second chance" learning centres have opened in northern Uganda and South Sudan, with a focus on making sure girls have equal access to education. These experiments in south-south development collaboration teach us that civil society organizations, working in concert with governments, can help bridge the quality gap. As we reach for the goal of universal primary education for all, let us move beyond the singular focus on student enrolment figures. We need to put the child student where she belongs, at the centre of the learning process, where she can harness her skills and look forward to a prosperous adulthood. Time is of the essence, and the urgency of getting this right for millions of children around the world cannot be overstated. Are we ready to rise to the occasion?

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed is the founder and chairperson of BRAC, a development organisation based in Bangladesh that reaches an estimated 126 million people in 11 countries worldwide. He won the inaugural WISE Prize for Education in Qatar in 2011.

Africa: Universal Primary Education Is Not Enough

"We need to put the child student where she belongs, at the centre of the learning process, where she can harness her skills and look forward to a prosperous adulthood," says Sir Fazle Hasan Abed