Is learning improving fast enough in Africa?

By Silvia Montoya, Director, United Institute for Statistics, and Martin Gustafson, Stellenbosch University  

The role of the UIS is not just to collect and disseminate country-level statistics, but also to promote the quality and comparability of statistics while building statistical capacity at the regional and country level. In line with these objectives, a new UIS report offers new insights into the successes and challenges relating to the monitoring of learning proficiency in Africa.

Credit: Eva-Lotta Jansson

The report is aimed primarily at those with an interest in measuring learning proficiency and in interpreting proficiency statistics. This report is a tool that aims to support the African Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA) in its efforts at “capacity building for data collection, management, analysis, communication, and usage” as well as SDG 4.

Comparable measures of learning proficiency, in particular in developing countries and over time, remain scarce, and their reliability is often questionable. This reflects the fact that many methodological, funding and political hurdles stand in the way of progress. Yet there has been substantial progress, and the very process of developing the required measurement systems has helped bring about a stronger focus on the urgent need to improve learning proficiency, as both a human right and a social development imperative.

Available statistics for SDG indicator 4.1.1, on minimum learning proficiency, confirm that learning levels are low across most of Africa compared to the rest of the world. However, they also point to especially large improvements in recent years. While over a third of the African trends are 3 percentage points or greater in absolute terms, this is true for just 10% of the trends in the rest of the world.  This finding relies largely on data from the francophone PASEC assessment programme, which recently published results from its 2019 round that included 10 countries that had also participated in the 2014 round.

However, the largely Anglophone SACMEQ programme, which has not yet been used for official SDG reporting, has pointed to similarly large improvements. Insofar as these trends are correct, Africa displays exceptionally good progress, even if from a low base. However, inconsistencies in the trends, for instance across subjects,as well as lingering questions about the reliability of some of the country trends, especially in the case of SACMEQ, for which there have not been enough opportunities to discuss. While improvements are what governments and societies aim for, relying on statistics that overstate these improvements would not help the planning process.

PASEC and SACMEQ trends in end-of-primary reading


PASEC and SACMEQ have vastly improved our understanding of learning in schools in Africa. As they undergo methodological improvements, it is vital that their microdata are used as widely as possible, especially in government and academic institutions within African countries, to build local analytical capacity, uncover new patterns in the data and help strengthen these programmes.

In Africa, as elsewhere, learning proficiency statistics are higher for the lower grades of the schooling system. On the surface, proficiency would appear to be worse at the secondary level than the primary level. However, as discussed in the report, this is largely because assessments at higher grades tend to be especially demanding – arguably more demanding than they should be. These patterns should not detract from the importance of improving learning in the early grades, which is where foundations for lifelong learning are laid.

An analysis of gender-specific patterns confirms that in Africa, as in the rest of the world, girls perform slightly better than boys on average, particularly in reading. Females outperform males in slightly more countries in Africa than the reverse. Countries where the reverse exists, in other words where males outperform females, tend to be in the Central and Western regions of the continent. When gender differences in school participation are taken into account, the finding that girls outperform boys does not change.

An additional source of information, the Foundational Learning Module of the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), is atypical insofar as it tests the learning proficiency of children in households, not schools. One advantage is that it covers children who are not enrolled in school, but a disadvantage is that children are more likely to be absent during a household-based interview than during testing at a school.

The impact of the pandemic on learning worldwide is believed to have been heavy largely due to reduced contact time with teachers. It is estimated that by mid-July 2021, on average Africa’s learners had lost 69% of a school year since the start of the pandemic. UIS will contribute evidence specific to Africa on what this means for learning proficiency early next year when it publishes the results of its Measuring the Impact of Learning Outcomes (MILO) project in six African countries, although far more evidence will be needed.

Percentage of the school year lost due to COVID-19 up to 15 July 2021

The report ends with a few recommendations. Strengthening national ownership of SDG indicator 4.1.1 statistics is important. African countries, as well as the African Union, should be more actively involved in determining when SDG 4 proficiency statistics are of sufficient quality for official reporting and planning purposes. Drawing from all available data sources is necessary. The more analysts are interrogating the underlying microdata, helping explain patterns and inconsistencies across different datasets, the better it will be for learners and governments.

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2 Responses to Is learning improving fast enough in Africa?

  1. Yes. A good question. Thank you 😊

  2. Tibebu Derseh says:

    It depends on the region. In some regions the trend might be downwards. e.g., Eastern Africa

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