TORONTO – When South African university students took to the streets in 2016 as part of the “Fees Must Fall” protest movement, the “decolonization of the curriculum” was among the movement’s chief concerns. It was a pivotal moment in South Africa’s history, as young people rose to demand quality and accessible education. But a crucial question was missing from the debate over fees and curricular relevance: how can changes to higher education empower Africa’s youth to drive the continent’s economic transformation?
For Africa, the question is no longer “if” students are taught, but “what.” Unfortunately, while access to education has improved significantly in recent decades, school curricula have changed little since the colonial era, when secondary education was an elite privilege designed to advance the careers of a select few. Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programs have also suffered from neglect. Today, these initiatives are marked by outdated courses and rote learning methods that fail to prepare young people for the demands of the twenty-first-century job market.
The trouble goes beyond traditional components of the curriculum, like math, science, and language. There is also a deficiency in critical “soft” skills, such as communication, teamwork, and problem solving. Though neglected, it is these skills that enable young people to become adaptable, lifelong learners. The mastery of soft skills correlates to improved outcomes in school, work, and life. Yet, until recently, training in soft skills has not been integrated into formal education systems on the continent.
Fortunately, that is changing. Across the continent, secondary schools and TVET systems are transforming themselves to prepare Africa’s young minds with the skills they need to make the transition from school to employment, and to become more engaged citizens.
These adjustments are coming at a critical time for Africa, where many countries are experiencing a demographic dividend of declining fertility rates and rising productivity. In particular, these changes mean more opportunity for young people as they prepare to enter the job market. But to succeed on the job, young people must have the skills and education that a modern economy requires.
At The MasterCard Foundation, where I manage education and learning programs, we’ve put together a blueprint – called Skills at Scale – to help African educators revitalize their curricula to capitalize more effectively on the economic potential of youth.
One of the continent’s most successful efforts already underway is the USAID-funded Akazi Kanoze Youth Livelihoods Project, designed by the Education Development Center (EDC) in Boston. Akazi Kanoze epitomizes how a small initiative can catalyze wider education-sector reform, by emphasizing links to local employers that provide access to entry-level jobs, internships, and apprenticeships. The focus on personal development, interpersonal communication, and leadership training has ensured that students are well equipped to enter the labor market upon graduation.
Rwanda’s Ministry of Education has already moved to integrate elements of the program in TVETs across the country. The government recently integrated Akazi Kanoze’s approach in the national curriculum to equip secondary and TVET students with the soft skills they require to succeed. National exams in the 2018-2019 academic year will also reflect the new competency-based curriculum.
Since 2009, Akazi Kanoze trainings have prepared more than 37,000 youth for work, with more than 65% of participants in the initial round of training employed six months after graduation. Based on the success of integrating soft skills into the curriculum in Rwanda, The MasterCard Foundation and EDC will launch a similar program in Senegal later this year.
Case studies from Skills at Scale highlight six components to a successful skills-training initiative. These include an enabling policy environment, in which the government is supportive and sets clear goals for education sector reform; vocal backing for these changes from strong political champions; wide stakeholder engagement, especially in the design and implementation phases of the reform; decentralization of authority for education; flexibility on the part of donors; and the ability to measure the changes’ impact on youth employment and entrepreneurship.
Change is not without challenge. Adapting models of skills training to vastly different education systems across Africa will take time. It will also be difficult to ensure that intensive training models reach all young people, including those no longer in school. Experience in Rwanda shows that curriculum redesign requires close cooperation with education and workforce development authorities, as well as government officials, teachers, and school administrators. New curriculum content also requires developing new teaching and learning materials.
Achieving scale also requires a markedly different approach to training teachers than is currently on offer in most African school systems. Trainings must go beyond traditional, one-off approaches, by providing ongoing teacher support. New pedagogies also require continual supervision and practice, especially early on. The old “cascade” model of teacher training simply won’t work.
African governments, with support from the international community, can help students’ transition from school to work by relying on a curriculum that elevates the importance of soft skills. If done well, these changes can ensure young people are positioned to drive Africa’s future prosperity. Africans deserve a forward-looking education system, not one that remains stuck in the past. As students in South Africa demonstrated last year, the continent’s youth will settle for nothing less.