Getting schools and skills right


Economic transformation depends on a workforce equipped with the right knowledge and skills to meet current—and future—labor market demands. How can African countries get their education systems on the right track?

For economic transformation to take root in a developing country, a workforce equipped with the knowledge and skills to be highly productive on farms, in firms, and in government offices—and to generate innovations in technologies, processes, products, and services—is a fundamental need. At a minimum, that means ensuring young people have solid foundational skills: good basic cognitive skills, including STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and digital skills, and non-cognitive skills, including interpersonal and socio-emotional skills like resilience and curiosity.

Extensive research indicates that these foundational skills—cognitive and non-cognitive—affect future labor market outcomes, complement each other, and are essential building blocks from which young people can develop the type of cognitive and technical skills that are especially critical for accelerating transformation. For example, higher-order cognitive skills—which include unstructured problem solving, learning, and reasoning—are increasingly in demand as workplaces become more complex in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR, era.

The Overseas Development Institute found that in Kenya, companies with higher internet penetration (a proxy for 4IR integration or digitization) have a higher share of skilled workers and higher productivity. The evidence is also clear that increasing cognitive skills lead to higher earnings and growth, while a skilled workforce will increase the impact of technological progress on productivity.

By contrast, lack of skills resulting from an inadequate education can lower the capacity of firms to transform knowledge into innovation—and of workers to transition from the informal to the formal economy, where wages are higher and upward mobility is more likely.

Multiple factors drive informality, which varies by country context, but lack of education is among the most prevalent. Data show that informal employment falls as education attainment rises. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the highest rate of informal employment is found among those with no education—about 95 percent, according to International Labour Organization findings from 2017. With secondary education attainment, this figure drops notably to 70 percent, a figure that remains quite high but nonetheless represents a dramatic improvement in the context of the region’s population—about a quarter-billion people.

Advanced cognitive, non-cognitive, and technical skills in key sectors will be needed to drive transformation, while technical and business skills in labor-intensive areas in the informal sector will also be needed to support inclusive growth. A skilled workforce, particularly armed with technical and STEM-related knowledge, is key to leveraging 4IR innovations so that Africa’s growing working-age population becomes globally competitive.

The previous article in this series explored policies to support employment and boost productivity within the business environment in sectors that have a high potential for job creation under 4IR. This article focuses on the supply side—the skills needed to support transformation and boost earnings potential of workers in the formal and informal sectors—and considers why young people in Africa are failing to develop the skills needed through education systems and technical and vocational education training (TVET) institutes.

Skills needs and general secondary education

A large share of students who enroll in secondary education fail to gain good foundational skills, so they struggle to progress through the education system and gain productive employment. Quality learning at school is dependent on several variables, including learner preparation; effective teaching; the availability of critical inputs such as textbooks and supplies, which have failed to keep up with growing enrolments and so are often in short supply; and good school management and governance, which is often marginalized—if not missing entirely—in education systems that fail to value strong accountability measures and performance standards, for instance. While all of these and other variables, such as finance, are critical to quality learning outcomes, the first two—learner preparation and effective teaching—are worth a closer look in the context of skills development.

Preparing young learners

The optimal period for acquiring foundational skills is through early childhood (and into adolescence for non-cognitive skills, although they can also be acquired throughout early adulthood). Strong early childhood development helps children learn at school and sets children onto higher learning trajectories. However, many children, especially from disadvantaged households, arrive at school with learning deficits. As skills beget skills, these children often struggle to learn, and initial gaps widen over time.

Early years investments are more cost-effective as skills accumulation is a cumulative process. Additionally, the opportunity for people to develop good foundational skills reduces over time. For example, adult education programs have limited success. Thus, early childhood investment so that young people arrive at schools ready and able to learn is a critical, preparatory step for ensuring future success at the secondary level. The next step is ensuring broad secondary access and participation.

A major Mastercard Foundation study on secondary education, published in August 2020,  advocates strongly for “universalization” of secondary education as a platform for the workforce of tomorrow, because completion of secondary education offers the youth optimal depth and knowledge needed for eventual productive employment.

Making teaching more effective

Improving access to education while also expanding the number of effective teachers is a key opportunity for Sub-Saharan African countries to leapfrog education progress—this is one of the key findings of the Mastercard Foundation study. Too often, countries have expanded access to education without also boosting teacher quality and capacity—key drivers of quality learning. However, there is encouraging evidence of change.

In 2014, Ghana began T-TEL (Transforming Teacher Education and Learning), an ambitious multi-year program supported by the United Kingdom to improve the learning experience of pre-service teachers who are ready to teach. In conjunction with the T-TEL program, the Ghana government began developing a new teacher training framework and school curriculum designed in consultation with stakeholders in various economic sectors. Other countries, such as Senegal and Rwanda, have taken similar steps to boost teacher quality and capacity.

In general, institutions struggle to recruit and retain enough high-quality teachers and trainers to meet demand, absenteeism is a problem, and teacher-student contact hours remain comparatively low. But there are significant obstacles on the administrative side as well.

In Africa, education cycles are generally dominated by an excessive number of examinations and testing, which forces instructors to teach facts and exam preparation rather than ensuring students have a solid understanding of the subject. Teachers also often lack access to continuing and structured professional development, so they are unable to use the latest evidence-based pedagogical techniques.

Stronger achievement in cognitive outcomes will require more rational examinations policies, better pre-and in-service teacher training, and changes in teacher behavior. At the same time, curricula at lower and upper secondary schools need to better prepare students for work in key economic sectors, such as agriculture and services, to reflect the fact that many young students will either move directly into the labor force after lower secondary or possibly into some vocational training.

Indeed, an increasing number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are integrating more general vocational and technical skills in the secondary education curriculum (lower and upper) to help maximize the potential for young people to become employed.

Skills needs and the TVET system

As defined by the International Labour Organization, TVET refers to aspects of the educational process, in addition to general education, involving the study of technologies and related sciences as well as the “acquisition of practical skills, attitudes, understanding, and knowledge” to train future workers for the labor market. Both public and private educational establishments supply TVET instruction.

Unfortunately, TVET systems in Africa need urgent reform, having suffered from years of under-investment and a historic inability to provide the skills required by businesses. They are often supply-driven and lack a clear strategy with strong accountability and financing systems—key inputs for high performance. Research shows that trainers either don’t have the industry and practical experience needed or lack an understanding of effective pedagogical techniques; industry training is not yet a structured part of TVET teacher training in most countries, for example.

As a result, TVET is often seen as a low-quality option aimed at students who have dropped out of the academic route, which in turn makes it difficult to recruit high-quality trainers or erase societal stigmas often associated with technical education.

Reform approaches

A key lesson from more advanced TVET systems is that private sector engagement, in designing and delivering TVET, is crucial for quality and relevance. TVET systems need to be demand-driven and dynamic so they can respond to the changing needs of the labor market, which in turn depends on private sector input in the design of TVET curricula and standards.

TVET is relatively expensive to deliver but given the benefit of a quality TVET system for businesses, governments across the world are increasingly looking to the private sector to help cover costs. Aside from finance, the private sector has a key role to play in providing essential work experience or practical training opportunities for students. For example, in Singapore, TVET students often work on projects commissioned by private industry in their final year, which also helps promote their employment chances.

On the strategy side, students need to be encouraged to train for work in key sectors, rather than aiming for subjects with weak labor demand. Take agriculture, which is not seen as an attractive career choice due to the sector’s current low productivity and older age dominance, but, as described in Part 2 of this series, there are plenty of productive opportunities for young people—with the right policy support.

The formal TVET system also needs to better cater for the needs of the informal, non-wage sector. Formal TVET institutions try to prepare students for work in the very small formal sector, but most of the opportunities are in the informal sector and self-employment. TVET curricula should include entrepreneurship training, developing skills for self-employment, and ensuring students have good transferable skills that can be applied across jobs within a chosen sector.

Many Sub-Saharan Africa countries have undertaken TVET reforms in recent years, but progress is slow due to capacity and resource constraints as well as overly ambitious agendas. Furthermore, the evidence of what works best isn’t very clear, because most reform packages have yet to be thoroughly evaluated.

Rather than setting over-ambitious reform agendas that may be hard to deliver countries could develop a TVET reform strategy as part of a wider economic strategy and identify a set of priority areas or sectors to focus on, with well-defined implementation plans that include monitoring and evaluation. Given the relatively poor quality of formal public TVET systems to date—high delivery costs while providing a little foundation for jobs—a priority should be improving quality and efficiency before trying to significantly expand access.

Acquiring the right skill sets for future work

The trend is towards greater flexibility between TVET and the general education route. Comparative studies conclude that secondary education and TVET should be complementary and flexible. A lot of high-income countries now have close and flexible links between the two and into the tertiary levels. This also means allowing the opportunity for higher level and specialized TVET study in priority sectors, with clear pathways into work or further study.

For example, Singapore’s “bridges and ladders” system gives flexibility for students—not just between and within TVET and secondary education but also between employment and the education system—and opportunities for students to progress as far as their interests and ability allow them. This flexibility makes TVET more appealing and is particularly important as rapid technological change and constantly changing labor market demands will affect the skills needed by students and entail life-long learning.

The distinction between the TVET and upper secondary education is also becoming less clear. Lower- and upper-secondary education is moving towards more vocational content and TVET systems are tending towards teaching more general as well as technical and vocational skills. In theory, this approach will help TVET and general secondary education align more holistically with local labor market needs, though the degree of specialization will depend on country-specific circumstances.

Alongside improved technical skills, countries must also increase STEM participation to make the most of the opportunities presented by 4IR. Poor STEM performance in upper secondary education is driven, in part, by low attainment in STEM-related subjects at earlier levels. So increasing STEM uptake and performance will require large improvements in the quality of STEM education across the entire educational landscape.

The key is to ensure students acquire broad enough skill sets—in both general secondary and TVET education systems—to help them gain productive employment now and in the long run. The final part of this series will take a look at policy recommendations to support this goal.

About the Series

In this four-part series, ACET takes a measured look at what African countries should do, in light of the disruptive evolution of technology, to provide productive jobs for their large and fast-growing youth population. The focus is on secondary education, meaning education that comes after primary education (the first six years of school) but before tertiary or university level education, including both academic-oriented secondary schools (both lower and higher) and technical and vocational training institutes (TVETs).

The articles in this series are based on the ACET research paper The Future of Work in Africa: Implications for Secondary Education and TVET Systems, prepared by Edward K. Brown, Senior Director Research and Advisory, ACET, and Helen Slater, Senior ACET Fellow. Additional research support was provided by George Boateng, Amanda Aniston, Diana Dadzie and John Dadzie. The paper was commissioned by the Mastercard Foundation for the report Secondary Education in Africa: Preparing Youth for the Future of Work, published August 2020.

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