Secondary Education, Economic Transformation, and the Future of Work in Africa


Policy actions for the future of work

African policymakers face a daunting challenge in designing skills strategies that support transformation goals while also producing a resilient, adaptable workforce for the future. These recommendations offer a path forward.

Improving the quality of learning in general secondary education and technical and vocational education training (TVET) systems will require massive reforms in most African countries. These reforms will also need to extend beyond the secondary phase, particularly to include pre-primary and primary education, to strengthen the foundational skills that underpin successful learning outcomes—and lead to productive work.

They also need to reflect the reality that transformation will take time, and so most young Africans will need to generate their own productive opportunities, especially in the informal sector. Expanding upper secondary education without a commensurate increase in labor demand and number of productive opportunities for the self-employed and entrepreneurs risks higher youth unemployment and underemployment as secondary graduates will just displace workers with lower skills, rather than help create additional jobs.

For most African governments, limited budgets and strained resources mean difficult investment trade-offs will need to be made between different groups. The relative weight placed on those trade-offs, as well as the accompanying education policy priorities, will depend on a country’s cultural, political and geographic context, which varies considerably across the continent.

For example, countries with very low basic education attainment and fragile economies may place a much higher weight on improving basic education access and quality rather than investing in upper secondary and higher education. Countries that have progressed further on basic education attainment and have more stable policy environments may place a higher weight on investing in upper secondary and TVET to help propel employment and spur transformation. Meanwhile, countries that are already in the more advanced stages of transformation may focus on resiliency, or ensuring their workers have access to the tools and knowledge they need to adapt to structural and technological change.

In general, however, most countries considering reforms to better prepare young Africans for future work can orient their context-specific policies around two core strategic aims: first, Improving early education access and outcomes; and second, improving secondary education and TVET skills development. Specific policy objectives and measures to support these strategic aims are described below.

  1. Improve the quality and relevance of secondary education

Improving the quality and relevance of secondary education is crucial to ensure young people stay in school and obtain the skills they need for productive work. It requires policy action on many fronts, particularly in relation to improving learning materials, teacher effectiveness, national standards, and STEM uptake.

  • Improve the availability and quality of learning materials. Many African countries face severe shortages in textbooks and learning materials, even in core subjects, often due to insufficient financing to cover high costs—which are a by-product of poor governance and ineffective procurement.

Fixes to these structural shortcomings should also be accompanied by a push to modernize learning materials through increased reliance on technology and by integrating digital content into curricula. Governments should also consider public-private partnerships to share costs and help shape curriculum strategies.

  • Improve the quality of teaching. Governments must prioritize teacher management to ensure lasting improvements to education quality. This involves recruiting high-potential teachers and giving them the support they need to teach effectively and grow professionally so that they stay in the education field. Some key areas to address include stronger pre- and in-service teacher training, improved learning environments (such as manageable class sizes and basic services), and stronger accountability and teacher incentives, which will require strong dialogues between officials and teacher unions.
  • Devise flexible and relevant national frameworks. A National Qualifications Framework (NQF) can be a useful tool in education and training reforms and provide vital reference points for ensuring students learn relevant skills that reflect a country’s socioeconomic and labor market needs. NQFs should aim to address gender equality, link to clear career pathways, and encompass both the TVET and general education system. Effective coordination of NQFs at a regional and subregional level can also facilitate labor mobility and increase job prospects for youth.
  • Improve STEM uptake. A significant shift in STEM-related learning—that is, subjects in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—will require clear targets, matched by necessary resources and incentives for providers and students. Examples include addressing the shortage of qualified STEM teachers, ensuring STEM curricula is relevant and engaging, and ensuring resources align with STEM targets alongside accountability systems.

2.      Increase access to secondary education

Strong progress has been made in ensuring Africa’s youth have access to primary education, but access to secondary is still a major challenge for many reasons. Excessive travel distances, particularly in rural areas where children often must travel further to get to school, are one significant impediment.

Financial costs, such as uniforms or the opportunity cost of helping at home, also increase the likelihood that students, especially from poor households, don’t attend school. In many countries, early marriage or pregnancy also prevents young girls from attending school. Furthermore, access has historically been limited to a privileged few, with high-stakes examinations serving as a winnowing device that limits progression through the education system for many young people.

  • Address supply side constraints. The most obvious and immediate measure to increase access is to increase opportunities to learn by building new schools nearer pupil population centers, particularly in rural areas. Demand for secondary education in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to nearly double by 2030; supply must increase concurrently. Additionally, it is important to expand digital infrastructure to underserved populations and to better enable distance learning.
  • Address demand side constraints. For existing facilities, ensuring a safe and healthy learning environment is essential for attracting and retaining children, particularly girls. Removing high stakes exams in favor of improved classroom assessments for certification purposes can improve transition rates between primary and lower secondary. And stackable, or modular courses—where students don’t have to complete modules straight after one another—could encourage completion rates for TVET students who are working or have additional responsibilities outside school.

3.      Improve the quality and relevance of TVET

Countries should prioritize improving the quality and relevance of TVET systems through better tracking, more effective trainers, and demand-driven curricular for key growth sectors, including the informal sector, with explicit industry linkages. The temptation to rapidly scale up provision while implementing large system scale reform should be avoided because TVET is relatively expensive to deliver, reforms are often complex and take time to implement, and the evidence on what works in a particular country isn’t that clear.

  • Track TVET from upper secondary. Students need a good set of foundational skills before they start learning more advanced, technical skills. That means tracking TVET from upper secondary schools so students start only after they have developed necessary skills through basic education.
  • Improve the quality of TVET trainers. High-quality TVET trainers are in short supply. Several policy measures can be enacted to help attract and retain qualified trainers, including: creating clear and flexible pathways for becoming a TVET trainer (with commensurate salaries); developing progression routes within the profession for career growth; implementing a consistent training protocol to ensure skills are current and relevant; and enacting minimum competence standards.
  • Ensure TVET is relevant and demand driven. Close and continuous engagement between policymakers and the private sector is necessary to jointly agree on standards and curricula that meet the needs of the formal sector—and as much as possible, the informal sector as well. In particular, curricula should include entrepreneurship and business skills training and not force students into narrow specializations so they are better able to adapt to changing labor markets.

However, private sector engagement takes effort. Many countries, including India, have struggled to get industry sufficiently involved in skills development. Research shows that employers need to fully understand the benefits of creating a demand-led system—and their role in delivering it—for them to engage effectively.


  1. Improve the value of education spending

Universal secondary education is a key component of a prosperous, equitable society, yielding returns at both the societal level—in terms of economic growth—and at the individual level in terms of higher wages. But substantial financial resources are needed to reach nearly universal enrolment in lower and upper secondary schools in Sub-Saharan Africa—US$175 billion per year between now and 2050, according to an August 2020 report from the Mastercard Foundation. That figure dwarfs the approximate US$25 billion spent in 2015.

In most countries, education spending will need to increase to achieve universal access but also to keep current primary and secondary enrolment rates constant amid rising demand, improve lower secondary completion rates, and improve the overall quality of learning. Given near and medium-term forecasts for relatively weak economic growth—especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic—and the changing dynamic of global development assistance, countries will need to rely on improved domestic resource mobilization efforts and more efficient operations as ways to achieve better value from education budgets.

  • Seek smart solutions to lower costs. Building new infrastructure is particularly expensive, but alternative measures such as adding new classrooms to existing primary or secondary schools or teaching in shifts (if accompanied by monitoring and evaluation plans to ensure quality) can help lower costs in the face of increased demand. Other potential measures include establishing virtual science labs in schools, replacing boarding schools with less costly day schools closer to student populations, relying on multi-skilled teachers to teach several subjects while streamlining the curriculum, and engaging the private sector to help provide capacity.
  • Establish effective accountability systems. Credible education plans, transparent budgets with clear responsibilities, and independent auditing procedures help hold governments to account, while clear and sensible regulations with monitoring mechanisms are needed to support quality improvement measures. Successful implementation of accountability systems requires information to be transparent, timely, relevant, and available to decision makers.
  • Ensure capacity and political commitment. Political will to realize the scale of the reforms, as well as prioritize and make difficult decisions between different population groups and sectors, is paramount. Governments also need to build capacity for evidence-based policies that consider cost effectiveness and create incentives to align behavior of stakeholders towards achieving skills development objectives. Finally, better coordination of responsibilities and accountabilities within and between government ministries and agencies
is needed in most countries.

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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