In the wake of a global pandemic that has disrupted schooling for millions while accelerating regional trends toward digitalization and automation, reforming secondary education systems has never been more urgent. To navigate the future of work, Africa's young people need access to training that helps them develop the skills and competencies demanded in the labour market. Yet even before the pandemic, employers reported that young people lacked requisite skills, while national and international assessments revealed persistently low levels of learning in the region, despite near universal access to primary education. Now, there are fears that school closures may set back learning even further, particularly among vulnerable students, including young women and girls, who are at risk of permanently dropping out of the system.
As we look forward to schools re-opening, we should be thinking beyond a return to the status quo. We need to make education systems accessible to more young people, and more relevant to a dynamic labour market, ensuring we are equipping young people with the skills they need to find, access, and perform, or to create, dignified work. This will be key to driving much-needed economic growth.
So what can we do? Mastercard Foundation' report, Secondary Education in Africa: Preparing Youth for the Future of Work, offers some compelling guidance. Improving secondary education on the continent is foremost about integrating work-relevant skills training. That means developing young people's literacy and numeracy skills, problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and digital skills—such as how to make use of digital devices and communicate online. This in turn means adjusting curricula and teacher training. Reforms that infuse skills training into existing courses will help us to tackle the impact of the pandemic and other global challenges such as climate change, and enable future resilience in the face of crises.
But changing how we offer secondary education to better respond to today's labor market is not just about skills. It also means making education systems more flexible and responsive to the needs of diverse youth. Flexibility in the system can be created by providing pathways between technical and general secondary and tertiary education, and offering the millions of youth who left school early due to the need to work or care for a child, opportunities to complete their education. Offering accelerated programs or modular approaches to learning that are accredited and at scale are two approaches to integrating flexibility at the system level. And leveraging technology to these ends, through inclusive e-learning, not only increases the available options for learners but offers the possibility of reaching those who might otherwise not be able to participate in a traditional face-to-face classroom.
Ultimately, building high performing education systems is a decades long process, but it can be done. Countries around the world and in Africa have launched significant reforms with impressive results and we have learned from their examples.
Research from these efforts shows that successful reform starts at the top, with demonstrated political will coupled with investment that spans years and continues across successive administrations. Leaders must provide a well-articulated vision for reform, and education ministries should adopt clear plans and priorities. Importantly, governments must allocate the resources needed by education systems to meet these targets.
Yet political will and clear plans with financial backing are not enough. Successful reform requires defined roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders in the education system—everyone from ministry officials to school district leaders, school principals and teachers. Yet those responsible must have incentives to change. Rewards don't have to be monetary —they can include public recognition of improvement, promotion, or access to professional development training. Having both clear plans and the incentives to implement them helps diverse constituencies align around shared goals and become accountable for outcomes.
Rwanda in recent years has implemented significant reforms, introducing a competency-based curriculum that emphasizes using knowledge in the real world. It also trained teachers to offer an innovative entrepreneurship program in all secondary schools, helping youth to build business and financial skills. Rwanda is not alone. Across Africa, the majority of secondary school systems have introduced or plan to introduce competency-based curricula. Many are embarking on additional reforms as well and promising practices in the areas of curricula reform, teacher recruitment and training, and the introduction of flexible pathways are emerging.
As we re-think education in light of the pandemic, there is a clear need for innovation. In the last few months, we have seen that governments can drive innovation at the national level. Looking forward, Ministries of education can build on this momentum by creating an environment that fosters innovation and signaling support for new thinking at the highest levels. They can develop capacity to pilot, adapt and scale new initiatives and programs, in collaboration with the private sector and non-governmental organizations. Forging stronger links with the private sector can also help ensure that learning is relevant to labor market needs and scale up successful models across school systems.
Now is the time to invest in and commit to reform and innovation in our secondary school systems. Allowing youth to develop the skills they need for the future or work will increase their productivity, helping to drive economic growth and harness the potential benefits of a demographic dividend. The young people we educate today will solve the global challenges of tomorrow—whether that is how best to sequester carbon, develop new agricultural techniques, or create a vaccine to stop the next global pandemic.