Going to school and completing a basic education had long been out of reach for far too-many children in the Eastern and Southern Africa Region (ESAR). Only in recent years, thanks to fundamental shifts in national policies and assistance from development partners, the situation has been steadily improving. Today, an increasing number of children are enrolled in school, and a higher number than ever before is completing a cycle of primary school education.
Between 2000 and 2011, the number of children in primary school rose dramatically from 42 million to 67 million in the 17 countries where data were available (UIS Data Centre, 2012). The official primary net enrolment rate now stands at 87 percent for both boys and girls. However, there are wide variations between countries, ranging from 39 per cent for boys and 34 per cent for girls in Eritrea, to 99 per cent for boys and 100 per cent for girls in Madagascar.
Despite the positive trends, in 2010, there were still around 9 million children of primary-school age excluded from enjoying their right to a basic education. While this has been a considerable improvement from 2000, when 17.6 million children were out of school, the majority of ESAR countries are unlikely to achieve the Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals of universal primary education by 2015.
For secondary education, enrollment, as well as attendance rates are significantly lower. The regional enrollment averages are 32 and 28 per cent for boys and girls, respectively, and an even smaller proportion actually attends school (26 per cent of boys and 24 per cent of girls).
Barriers to education
The barriers that keep children out of school are formidable and numerous. Vulnerable children, including girls, nomadic children, orphans, children with disabilities, children affected by HIV and AIDS or by armed conflict and natural disasters are at particular risk of missing out. Further, for every two children in ESAR who start school, one drops outs before finishing primary education.
Often, parents cannot afford the direct and indirect costs, such as school books and uniforms, of their children’s schooling. Qualified teachers are in short supply, and many schools are located far away from children’s homes, a factor that can increase the risk for girls of sexual abuse and harassment. Lack of access to safe water and separate latrines for boys and girls can also discourage children, especially girls, from attending school.
These barriers, coupled with others obstacles - disability, exclusion, and emergencies, for example - create high levels of out-of-school children for ESAR. Particularly worrisome is the situation in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where more than half, and more than 40 per cent of primary-aged children, respectively, are out-of-school. Moreover, with data from school censuses, the percentages of out-of-school children in Somalia and South Sudan are as high as 70 and 60 per cent.
Percentage of primary-aged children who are out of school
Source: ESAR Out of School Children Report, 2013
Poor quality of education and learning achievements
The most recent survey on learner achievement in ESAR demonstrates that even after completing six years of schooling, only 62 per cent of children attain minimum reading scores, and only 33 per cent achieve minimum standards in mathematics (SACMEQ, 2010).1 Indeed, as school fees are reduced or eliminated, national budgets are hard-pressed to keep up with the costs of educating larger numbers of children. But even as access to education is increasingly improving, overall quality is suffering. Pupil-teacher ratios have increased over the last 10 years (UIS Data Centre, 2012), and the teachers on duty receive only minimal, if any, training (UNESCO, 2012).
In addition, countries show huge variations in learning achievement. For example, in Swaziland, 93 per cent of students at Grade 6 achieved the minimum standard in reading, but the number stands at only 27 per cent in Malawi. Similar large variations are also found within countries with the rural poor particularly disadvantaged across the region.
UNICEF in action
Over the years, working alongside partners, UNICEF has been supporting the governments to ensure that every child in ESAR can have a chance to fulfill his or her basic right to a quality education. While addressing the challenges in access and quality, UNICEF takes a lead in early-childhood development, girls’ education, child-friendly schooling, and education in emergencies.
In 2011, UNICEF launched the Out-of-School Children’s Initiative (OOSCI) aiming to produce enhanced data and analysis of who is out of school and why. The initiative is a follow-up to the School Fee Abolition Initiative (SFAI), which was launched by UNICEF and the World Bank in 2005, and helped bring millions of children into school. Along with these initiatives, UNICEF and the World Bank have also rolled out a new methodology called the Simulation for Equity and Education to identify the bottlenecks in education.
In recent years, UNICEF has also become a major partner in managing donor funds, especially in countries where education is threatened by political instability. Two recent examples are the Education Trust Fund in Zimbabwe, where textbooks were provided to every primary school child, and the Fast Track Initiative in Madagascar, where UNICEF helped ensure that the education system continue to function during the country’s political turmoil through interventions such as providing payment to the teachers.
UNICEF has also been heavily involved in getting support for countries through the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). Currently, UNICEF is performing key GPE management roles in Burundi, Comoros, Madagascar, Somalia, South Sudan, and Zambia.
1 Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality, III Project Results: Pupil achievement in reading and mathematics.
More on education