Many sub-Saharan African countries have put great efforts towards the attainment of the goals of Education For All (EFA) as determined and agreed upon at the World Conference on Education For All (WCEFA) held in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990 and re-affirmed in Dakar, Senegal in 2000. This has led to considerable progress in reaching the EFA targets in some countries, including achieving gender parity, at least in primary school; expanding basic education to include additional years of secondary education; and finding a better balance between academic education and technical‐vocational and training. But many serious challenges remain, notably inadequate infrastructure and teacher resources and persistent geographic and socio‐economic disparities which leave many children (girls, the poor, ethnic/linguistic minorities) never enrolled in, or eventually pushed out of, school. Apart from Seychelles, it was elusive or mirage in much of  sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) achieving  the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for education – ensuring that every child, irrespective of gender, is able to complete a full course of primary school education in 2015.

Text by Victor F. O. Ombati & Alice Masese

The Education for All (EFA) movement is a global commitment to provide quality basic education for everyone: children, youth and adults. At the World Education Forum in Dakar in 2000, 164 governments committed themselves to achieve Universal Primary Education and gender equality in education by 2015. The achievement of this goal echoes a commitment made by many of the same countries in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990 to achieve universal primary education by the year 2015 (UNESCO,2001) . EFA was recognized by Article 26 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations which states that “Everyone has the right to education.” The movement to provide Education for All is based on the realization that expanding educational opportunities will enable countries to secure progress towards achieving the eight recognized targets of reducing poverty, hunger, maternal child deaths, disease, inadequate shelter, and gender and environmental degradation (UNESCO, 2001;UNESCO;  2000 ).  The world is making has made significant progress in primary enrolment/attendance as  most of the countries in the Middle East/North Africa, East Asia and the Pacific and Latin America and Caribbean regions have reached gender parity in accessing and completing pre‐school and primary school, even across place of residence, income levels, and ethnicity.  In fact, East Asia and the Pacific are reaching gender parity at all levels of education.  Arab States still lag behind in attaining EFA goals largely due to both economic and cultural/religious reasons.  In sub-Saharan Africa, sharp increase in the number of school age children is not only reducing gender gaps at the primary level, but also leading to a growing number of children progressing from primary to secondary. However, only Seychelles has fully achieved education for all; 31 countries are likely to attain the six goals after 2020. The primary school cycle is only completed by less than 70 percent of primary school-aged children, 31 million children are out-of-school, of which 53 percent are girls, 22 million youth are out of school, and 182 million adults are illiterate (UNESCO. 2014a).

The Challenges of Facing Education EFA sub-Saharan Africa

The challenges of the education sector in sub –Saharan Africa are quite enormous, ranging from poor learning conditions, infrastructural decay, and ratio of teacher to pupils, overcrowded classrooms, and lack of motivation or incentives from the government to teachers, dependence on private schools or overseas education among other.

Poverty: Access to education remains strongly associated with household wealth despite commitments to pro-poor policies and investment of resources. Though overall participation has often increased, the chances of the poorest being enrolled relative to the richest have generally not improved substantially and in some cases have deteriorated. Household poverty is the number one barrier keeping children out of school. Poverty is associated with hunger, lack of shelter and clothing as well as illness and illiteracy (World Bank, 2001). Children from poorest household are at least three times more likely to be out of school than their economically advantaged counterparts. Although poverty continues to decline in many countries, it remains a crucial barrier to reaching the goal of universal primary education. Studies have noted that schooling costs for families are a major constraint to sending and maintaining children in school (Deininger, 2003; Oxaal, 199). Poor households often cannot afford to send their children to school or are forced to withdraw children out of school at early ages because of inability to meet the cost of education. Studies have established that poverty weighs more heavily on girls than boys and gender differences in net attendance rates tend to be wider for poorer households in countries with relatively low school attendance (Rose & Al-Samarrai, 2001).The cost of education not only make it difficult for some children to enroll and stay in school, they also contribute to late starting of schooling, as children from poor background are delayed from attending school due to poor health and nutrition.

Discrimination: Gender-based discrimination in education is both a cause and a consequence of deep-rooted disparities in society. Girls around the world than boys are more likely to face a unique set of barriers such as cultural norms of early marriage and pregnancy, gender-based violence, and discriminatory education laws, policies, contents and practices, and expectations related to domestic labor, not to mention unsafe travel and a lack of sanitary facilities that prevent millions of them form enrolling, completing and benefitting from education (Buchmann, 2000; Harold and King, 1998).  Girls make majority of the global population of children out of school. The sub-Saharan Africa region has the lowest proportion of countries with gender parity: only two out of 35 countries.  Another group that are often marginalized from the society and remain invisible to main stream population and access to education are children with disabilities. Most countries especially developing ones have no effective policies to address their needs and provide them access to a quality education. In some of the world’s poorest countries, up to 80 percent of children with disabilities are out of school. Disabled children are denied education because of lack of physical access and specialist facilities. Cultural attitudes, such as shame, fear and embarrassment on the part of their families as well as teachers and other pupils also combine to make them venerable to being denied their right to education. In sub-Saharan  Africa,  10 percent  of 6- to 9-year-olds with no risk of disability had never been to school in 2006, but 19% of those with a risk of hearing impairment and 51percent of those who were at higher risk of mental disability had never been to school  according to  World Report on Disability (2011). Children at higher risk of disability are far more likely to be denied a chance to go to school, with differences widening depending on the type of disability. They are also more likely to drop out of school than any other vulnerable groups even in countries with high primary school enrollment rate.

Child labor: Indirect costs are the opportunity cost of labor at home or work that influence enrolling and supporting one to be in school (UNICEF, 2006). For households living in poverty, children may be pulled out of school and into work in the face of external shocks such as natural disasters, rising costs, or a parent’s sickness or unemployment . For example, in Kenya, most children work on family farms picking or plucking cash crops (such as coffee, tea, pyrethrum, fruit and vegetables or working as livestock tenders, and do not attend school (Ombati & Ombati, 2012). Most child laborers in Zambia, Nigeria, Togo and Ethiopia, Eritrea   are from poor families and help in doing agricultural. They also collect fire-wood, fetch water from a great distance and prepare and cook especially the girls in rural areas. In such cases, the opportunity costs of time spent at school are high (UNESCO, 2006; Jensen & Nielsen, 1997). In this approach, poverty and a lack of financial resources are seen as barriers to school enrolment and ongoing attendance. The number of hours that children work determines their school attendance: children who work long days on tea plantations or in brick factories cannot attend school (estimate for Rwanda: 400,000 child workers, of whom 120,000 were involved in the worst forms of child labor and 60,000 were domestic workers, while children who do domestic or productive work for only a short time each day, or who work seasonally or only when needed (Nkurunziza et al, 2003). The working children who are exploited are the most vulnerable in society including girls, orphans, ethnic and minority groups and street children- all of whom make up the majority of the out-of-school population (Colclough, 1994). By leaving school to enter the labor market prematurely, children miss a chance to lift themselves, their families, and their communities out of a cycle of poverty. Sometimes children are exposed to the worst forms of labor that is damaging to their physical, mental and emotional well-being. Besides, parents in subsistence-oriented rural communities often think that it is more important to involve children in economic activities and equip them with the basic life skills for future survival than send them to school for formal education.

Distance to school: For many children in sub-Saharan Africa, those without a nearby school in the village, they have to walk a considerable distance, through narrow muddy paths and wading across streams, in order to reach the nearest school. Distances between villages can be great and traveling between them dangerous—especially for young children and girls. The distance travelled to school has some measure of relationship to ills like absenteeism, delinquency, truancy, lateness, indiscipline, and non-attendance to school as research has demonstrated in the cases of Nigeria and Kenya. When the distance travelled to school is too far for the child, besides fatigue, there is the tendency for the child to lose interest at school and begin to be truant, and may drop out of school completely (Ombati and Ombati 2015; Duze, 2005;). Many children, especially girls, are also vulnerable to violence on their long and hazardous journeys to and from school. In Arid and semi-arid legion of Kenya, a study by Ombati and Ombati established that children set off for school, hungry, at 5am every day, not to return until 7pm. They spent many hours walking to school and from often arriving late, tired, and unable to concentrate in the lesion (2015). When schools are some distances from home, parents tend to worry about the safety of their children and often are unwilling to let them go to school. Distance is a major reason for high dropout rates in primary and secondary schools in sub-Saharan Africa.

Conflicts and insecurity: Over a half of the world’s primary-aged children out of school are estimated to live in conflict-affected fragile states (Nicolai 2008).  In 2011, around percent of all of the world’s out-of-school children were living in countries affected by conflict. The sub-Saharan African countries that have been typically involved in armed conflict included the Congos, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Rwanda, Guinea Bissau, Angola, Sudan, and Somalia. Conflict in these countries either contributed   to sharp incidents of children being stopped from accessing education, physically attacked for trying to go to school or having their school bombed, or recruited by armed groups. Besides the physical damage to school building, conflicts even greater damage – affecting the whole organizational basis of educational infrastructure (Abdi, 1998)

In Nigeria, for example, Boko Haram  kidnapped hundred of girls  while taking exams, further discourage families from sending their children to get an education and nobody call tell where the girls are to these days. Insurgents destroyed many school in Mali. In  the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, educational system has been left in ruins with virtually no trained or experienced teaching professionals following long period of fighting . Education of many   children was jeopardized in the Central African Republic as than half of the country’s schools remain closed following the Séléka rebel coalition’s takeover of the country and use of schools are their fighting bases.  Schools a were  destroyed or damaged,  used by military forces or occupied by displaced people or occupied for purposes other than education during the period of genocide in Rwanda, and civil strife in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Burundi, Sudan, and Angola. Modern warfare, mostly in the form intrastate conflicts, within Africa and elsewhere has targeted children “more callously and more systematically than ever before” (Poirier, 2012; Machel, 2001). There are often dramatic falls in student enrolments due to ongoing fear of attacks, displacement of teachers, looting of infrastructure and destruction of textbooks and curricula, culminating into the total collapse of local and sometimes national educational administration. Wars brings about  violence, torture and intimidation against children and teachers, death or serious injury, the shelling and bombing of schools, and the recruitment of school-aged children by armed groups . Teachers and students are killed, kidnapped, injured and traumatized (UNESCO, 2010). Even where schooling continues, conflict has a knock-on negative impact on learning and the quality of education received by children. The insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa is particularly a threat to the girl child education. These because most    parents are scared of enrolling them in school for fear of being raped, attacked and kidnapped by the warring parties. Those countries embroiled in conflicts are the highest spenders of their gross domestic product on military globally compared with the amount directed toward education (Davies, 2004).

Poor quality education: Even for those who make it to school are held back by poor quality education. Lack of access to quality education is preventing millions of people from escaping the cycle of extreme poverty around the world. One third of primary school age children in sub-Saharan Africa are not learning the basics, whether they have been to school or not. Many schools have fewer resources that are imperative for quality education. In the United Republic of Tanzania, for example, only 3.5% of all grade 6 pupils had sole use of a reading textbook. In Cameroon, there are 11 primary school students for every reading textbook and 13 for every math textbook in grade. In the Central African Republic, eight learners have to share one reading and mathematics textbook. Outdated and worn-out textbooks are often shared many students in many parts of the world (UNESCO, 2014b). These schools are also characterized with short supply of workbooks, exercise sheets, readers and other core materials to help students learn their lessons. Teachers have also problems of getting educational materials to help them to   prepare their lessons, share with their students, and guide their lessons.

A child in Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to study in an overcrowded classroom that can number as many as 67 pupils in Chad, for example, compared to fewer than 30 in organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Qualified teachers- the most important education resource in any country — are missing. Overcrowding remains thus an issue and in particular for Rwanda, Malawi and Central African Republic where the average number of learners per classroom exceeds 70. In Malawi, for example, there are 130 children per classroom in lower grades on average. In Uganda, where school fees were eliminated, more than 150 students are squeezed into some classrooms as the country works to build more schools and recruit enough teachers (Grogan, 2009; Appleton, 1997). Kenya’s public schools have an average of 50 students for every teacher, though some classes have only one teacher for 100 pupils with the upsurge of school enrollment that occupied immediately when the free-primary-school initiative was introduced in 2003 and there is no age limit on students entering the 1st grade, adults and young children alike pack schools that had long been effectively closed to the poor (Lloyed, et al, 2000; UNESCO, 2012). The overall pupil teacher ratio in Tanzania, Burundi Cameroun Chad Congo Mozambique Zambia is between 50 to 70. The countries that have a more manageable pupil teacher ratio include Seychelles Mauritius Gabon Guinea Equatorial S. Tomé & Principe Botswana Cabo Verde Comoros and Liberia (UNESCO, 2014 a). A large ratio of student’s to teachers means individual students receive little time with the teachers, while children in small classes that are manly private and catering for the rich are lavished with attention. These means that students who are weak in their understanding of the curriculum are not receiving as much help as they require, leading to inadequacies in knowledge.

Poor leaning environment: The majority of schools in sub-Saharan Africa do not provide encouraging learning environment for students/children. Very few schools have adequate buildings, most classrooms lack partitions and many schools do not have access to clean drinking water and sanitary toilets, and almost none have a place for children to play and enjoy sports. The most pronounced are in Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, and Niger where at least 60 percent of schools have no toilets (UNESCO, 2012; UNICEF2006).The absence of the basics necessities tends to discourage children, particularly girls, from attending school regularly. The result is that far too many students are dropping out or graduating from primary schools without   acquiring basic reading and numeracy skills.

Language of instruction: In sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in countries where the official language is not the most commonly spoken at home, many students are subjected to a foreign language other than their mother tongue, as the medium of instruction, but do not encounter it in their everyday lives (Truong, 2012). The medium of instruction in local schools include English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Afrikaans. These are foreign language children do not hear outside of school. Although African languages are used for instruction in some countries- it is only at the elementary school level and are highly discouraged in some cases. Research has established that when learners do not speak the language of instruction at home, they find learning difficult and academic achievement is undermined. They are also alienated by their own education systems that fall short in integrating local languages, knowledge, values, cultures, and philosophies of learning and teaching, this alienation feeds into a cycle of poverty that leaves the nation’s talents and creativity untapped.  Foreign languages of instruction contribute to excluding students who fail to master them from the educational system (Truong, 2012). Children need a chance to learn in their mother tongue as well as the official language because learning in an unfamiliar language holds children back, and makes it impossible for sub-Saharan African countries in achieving EFA goals.

The Post-2015 Educational Agenda

As the deadline for the Education for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has approached, only Seychelles has fully achieved education for all; 31 countries are likely to attain the six goals after 2020. The EFA goal of ensuring that every child, irrespective of gender, is able to complete a full course of primary school education remains elusive or a mirage to many of the SSA countries. The fundamental challenges that have constrained progress on the EFA agenda include rampant poverty and socio-cultural traditions that make the out-of-school difficult to enroll, stay and complete primary education. The post-2015 education goal must include concrete steps to overcome all forms of discrimination, including those based on disability, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and/or socio-economic status if EFA has to be achieved.

The lessons that can be learned from Seychelles that has successfully implemented EFA include: getting out-of-school children into school requires establishing educational institutions and more favorable learning incentives. The first strategy involves overcoming both demand- and supply-side constraints to enrollment and retention.  The second requires successfully addressing serious and pervasive institutional shortcomings, many of which are linked to dysfunctional incentives for administrators and teachers. The post-2015 educational agenda for SSA is to get the about 30 million children out of school into school. The damage of these children being denied education while they are growing up is difficult, if not impossible, to remedy retroactively.  Accessing educational opportunities by this group in its full and broad sense means free and unlimited/unhindered/unfettered opportunities at each level of education to enable one obtain knowledge, skills, and abilities available at that level needed to optimally participate and contribute to development in the society.

Policies such as social protections programs aimed at enhancing the expansion of education and reduction of direct and indirect costs of schooling need to be implemented to achieve EFA in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, when  Malawi in 1994, Uganda in 1997, Tanzania in 2000, and Cameroon, Burundi, Ghana, Rwanda, and Kenya in 2003 instituted free education after the elimination of school fees, aggregate increases in enrolment was witnessed in these countries (Riddell, 2003). Programs such as cash transfers, abolition of requirements to wear school uniforms, health initiatives liked de-worming and the provision of school feeding encourage school enrollment and retention. These programs need to target disadvantaged children and help bringing and keeping them in schools until they graduate.

Governments must commit more money to education budgets in order to keep children in school. UNESCO encourages governments to devote about 20 percent of their national budgets and six percent of their gross domestic product to education (2014a). The sub-Saharan Africa will need more money to pay the salaries of the additional primary school teachers required by 2020.  The region will also need more money to finance achieve universal primary education. Poverty is a key barrier to universalizing education. Given that both direct indirect and opportunity costs preclude access to education, the government has to ensure that they are gradually eliminated (Mukudi and Keller, 2010). The prerequisite is to identify these costs and, then, develop a strategy for their elimination. The key to a changed global design of education is an affirmation that education is a human right and a public responsibility.

Quality education and learning at all levels and in all settings should be at the core of the post- 2015 education agenda. Quality as it relates to enhancement of learning environments (school infrastructure and class sizes, provision of textbooks and other learning materials. Dilapidated classrooms need refurbishing or upgrading to acceptable minimum standards for learning. Children regardless of background, needs to have quality schools that have adequate facilities, well-trained teachers, a relevant curriculum and clearly defined learning outcomes. Evidence also shows that quality of education improves when teachers are supported – it deteriorates if they are not, contributing to the shocking levels of youth illiteracy. Staffing schools with well trained teachers is important in achieving quality education. The four strategies that have been identified to provide the best teachers to reach all children with a good quality education include:  First, the right teachers must be selected to reflect the diversity of the children they will be teaching. Second, teachers must be trained to support the weakest learners, starting from the early grades. A third strategy aims to overcome inequalities in learning by allocating the best teachers to the most challenging parts of a country. Lastly, governments must provide teachers with the right mix of incentives to encourage them to remain in the profession.

Decreasing the distance to school raises girls’ enrollment and attendance by assuaging their concerns about safety and reputation (Riddell, 2003). Initiatives to provide boarding schools where students have to travel long distances is a key strategy or initiative of enabling all children especially girls access to educational opportunities. Establishing more schools in regions with a relatively low school density needs to be encouraged. The mobile schools program in Northeastern province Kenya is an example of bringing school closer to the people (Ombati and Ombati, 2015). Another alternative is to promote the entry of private schools into the market by harnessing the supply-side response induced by vouchers, although it should be noted that in general, private schools are less likely to enter into underserved regions such as rural areas.

Schools need to teach the relevant curriculum and in a language that children understand. A bilingual approach that combines continued teaching in a child’s mother tongue with the later introduction of a second language can improve performance in the second language as well as in other subjects. The post-2015 educational agenda will also require implementation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) curriculum in sub-Saharan Africa schools. The changing requirements in the type and level of knowledge, skills and competencies for today’s knowledge-based economies requires sub-Saharan countries to successfully integrate ICTs and sustainable development in order to participate sucesssgfully in the  of growth in the global economy. The countries of sub- Saharan Africa needs to capitalize on the knowledge revolution to improve their competitiveness and welfare, developing countries need to build on their strengths and carefully plan appropriate investments in human capital, effective institutions, relevant technologies, and innovative and competitive enterprises.


Across sub- Saharan Africa, there is general awareness that the last decade has witnessed unprecedented progress in the development of education. Never in African history has so much been achieved in education over such a short period of time and governments are legitimately proud of their achievements. Despite the great achievements however, very few countries in the SSA region will reach the EFA goals by the year 2015. Several obstacles have hindered access to quality education for all, notably the shortage of qualified teachers, inadequate infrastructure and resources and gender inequality, with the world-wide illiteracy rate for women far higher than that for men. Disease such as HIV/AIDS pandemic, poverty, violent conflict, child labor and financial and economic crisis continue to undermine the provision of, and access to quality education for all. An overriding priority is to tackle poverty constraints by reducing the direct and indirect cost of schooling to families and addressing the incidence of child labor. Governments must be held accountable for ensuring that there is lifelong access to education from primary, secondary and all the way to tertiary levels. It is important that every student is taught by a qualified and well-supported teacher, and learns in safe, inclusive educational institutions with adequate resources and infrastructure, and has access to facilities if EFA has to be achieved.


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Ombati Victor Frederick Obwocha has a Ph.D. in social foundations, from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and works as adjunct professor at University of Virginia,  and  also serves as a program director with a social service agency, Maryland US.