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  • on 29.01.2014
  • at 04:00 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

We can get more children into school and improve their learning 0

In Ethiopia, we have reason to be very proud of the progress we have made in education over the past decade.

In 1999, just 37 percent of children were going to primary school. By 2011 that figure had risen to 87 percent  – one of the fastest increases in the world.

We still have a long way to go, but thanks to this expansion of primary schooling, the share of our young people who are literate has also increased, from 34 percent  in 2000 to 52 percent  in 2011.

How did we manage all this?

We have developed a sustained government-led effort to expand the public education system by creating an effective balance between supply-side policies (such as the construction of schools in remote areas) and complementary policies to stimulate demand (for example, fee abolition and mother tongue instruction). This has been backed by substantial increases in national education expenditure and aid to the sector, which doubled between 2000 and 2010.

The shift to greater regional and local autonomy has increased community participation and led to more widespread popular recognition of the importance of education, helping to expand access across the country in a very short time.

These encouraging figures are from Unesco’s 2013/4 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, whose global launch I am honoured to be hosting in Addis Ababa today.

On the international scale, however, the report conveys some sombre findings. Worldwide, 250 million children are not learning to read, write and count, whether they are in school or not, because their education is of such poor quality.

Every year, the world wastes $129bn on poor education that fails to give children the basic skills they need.

It is often claimed that getting more children into school inevitably means lowering the quality of education. But the report shows that it is possible to increase access to education while also making sure that children actually learn when they are in school.

The most striking evidence comes from the very region that is often seen as lagging behind – our home, sub-Saharan Africa. Including, of course, Ethiopia.

This balance is particularly impressive given that children attending school for the first time are more likely to be disadvantaged – to have experienced malnutrition and poverty or to live in remote rural areas. In addition, their parents are often illiterate and unable to help them with their studies.

Between 2000 and 2007, Kenya and Tanzania made great strides in the numbers reaching the end of primary school, partly because they both abolished primary school fees. At the same time, children learned more.

Over that period in Tanzania, the proportion of children who completed primary school rose from half to around two-thirds, while the proportion that were both in school and learning the basics in mathematics increased from 19 percent  to 36 percent. That is not enough, but is equivalent to around 1.5 million extra children learning the basics.

To benefit fully from education’s incredible power to transform lives, all of us in sub-Saharan Africa need to concentrate on the further steps that will improve learning quality at the same time as we are getting more children into school.

Above all, that means improving our teaching, especially for the disadvantaged. We need to make sure that measures to recruit, train, deploy and retain teachers are designed to give disadvantaged children the same chances as other children.

Teachers need good training that equips them to meet the needs of children from a wide range of backgrounds – including classroom experience, and access to mentors once they start teaching. New recruits must also reflect the diversity of the children they are going to teach, for example. Sometimes that means recruiting more female teachers

Good teachers should be allocated to areas serving disadvantaged children, such as remote and rural areas, using incentives such as housing or allowances. Incentives are also needed to retain the best teachers in the profession – including an attractive career path that offers opportunities for promotion.

In the end, an education system is only as good as its teachers – that is why we need to give them every bit of support that we can.

In Ethiopia, although we still have a long way to go, we have also made huge progress in a very short time. In a little less than two decades, we have managed to enrol more than 22 million children into education. The movement to get more children in schools  is now unstoppable. Now our big challenge is to give those children the best teaching possible. We know which road to take – so let’s take it together, for the sake of this generation and generations to come.

By Hailemariam DesalegnThis is Africa

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