Sub-Saharan African countries have recorded some of the biggest increases in primary school enrollment since the turn of the century, according to a closely-watched report from UNESCO released today. But the region still has the unenviable distinction of being home to the world’s largest out-of-school population.
UNESCO’s 2015 Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report tracks the progress countries have made in hitting six education targets set at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal in 2000, including achieving universal primary education, reducing adult illiteracy by 50% and enrolling equal numbers of girls and boys in primary school.
The number of children enrolled in primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa rose by 75% to 144 million between 1999 and 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, which the report puts down to the abolition of school fees in countries like Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya, as well as an increase in the number of teachers.
One standout performer was Burundi, which more than doubled the proportion of primary-age children enrolled in school from less than 41 in 2000 to 94% in 2010, achieving the highest percentage point rise. Niger also boosted its so-called net enrollment ratio from 27% to nearly 64%, while Mozambique managed an increase of almost 35 percentage points. The significant growth in Burundi and Mozambique’s school age populations made their achievements even more impressive, the report said, as it was “harder to maintain the effort to bring all children into schools.”
However, 16 of the 20 countries UNESCO judged to be furthest from reaching the EFA targets are in sub-Saharan Africa. No country in the region achieved what many consider to be the most important goal of universal primary education, defined as all children completing a primary school cycle. Although the number of out-of-school children in the region has fallen since 1999, there were still 30 million primary-age children not attending school in 2012. This works out as just over half the global total, compared to 40% in 1999:
Aaron Benavot, director of the Global Monitoring Report team, said sub-Saharan Africa’s share had increased because other regions of the world had made faster progress in getting children into the classroom. India, for example, slashed its out-of-school population by 16 million to 1.4 million.
“The numbers of out-of-school children worldwide have actually fallen dramatically over the last 15 years,” Benavot said. “When global leaders met in Dakar 15 years ago there were about 105 million out-of-school children. We now estimate that to be about 57 million. But most of this has occurred in other regions of the world and not so much in sub-Saharan Africa.”
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, 8.7 million children are not attending school, up from 7.1 million in 1999. UNESCO said corruption, lack of investment and conflict in the country’s northeast, where a Boko Haram insurgency has killed thousands, have resulted in Nigeria having one of the worst education systems in the world. It estimates that 39%, or 3.4 million, of Nigeria’s out-of-school children live in conflict-affected states.
The report also highlights one of the major obstacles preventing Africa from meeting its education targets: a demographic path that diverges from the rest of the world due to high birth rates. Between 1990 and 2010, the cohort of children aged 5 to 14 grew by 65% in sub-Saharan Africa, while in east Asia and the Pacific it declined by 13%. Also, while the share of this cohort in sub-Saharan Africa’s total population remained constant at around 27% during the 20-year period, it fell in all other regions.