Soaring demand for secondary education

27 June 2019



By Beifith Kouak Tiyab, Deputy Head, IIEP Pôle de Dakar


Over the past two decades, sub-Saharan Africa has made undeniable progress in improving access to and completion of primary education. The access rate to the first year of primary school is now close to 100%, while the completion rate has risen from 54% in 2000 to 70% in 2017. While primary education still excludes many children, these results are a positive development.  

As a direct consequence of this massification of primary education, more and more children are now knocking on the door of lower secondary schools. However, current data indicate that on average only 6 out of 10 children actually access the first year of lower secondary school. The transition from primary to secondary school still needs to be improved, despite several sub-Saharan African countries having abolished either the primary school exit exam or the secondary school entrance exam. 

Insufficient educational provision is certainly the first factor limiting access to secondary education. The access of a pupil leaving primary school to secondary school presupposes the existence of an available place within a secondary school in the same or a nearby locality. However, in most sub-Saharan African countries, while the supply of primary education is relatively well developed, the supply of secondary education is much less so and therefore does not allow all those who complete primary education to continue in secondary education. This is particularly noticeable in rural areas or areas remote from major urban centres. This effectively limits access to lower secondary education for children from rural areas or poor families.

The pedagogical organization of secondary schools is a second area in need of improvement. Teacher specialization by discipline can be costly. At the primary level, a single teacher is sufficient to take charge of a class; however, the secondary level requires much more to cover all the subjects in the curriculum. This can be very expensive without effective management modalities to optimize the use of teachers, especially in small schools.

In the coming decades, with both the high population growth of the African continent and progress in primary completion, millions of children will be eager to continue their schooling. To think that a simple mechanical removal of filters such as the primary school leaving examination or the college entrance examination will make it possible to offer a continuum of basic education to all these children is illusory. The universalization of access to secondary education is a new challenge for African States. 

Reforms will undoubtedly be necessary to provide an appropriate response. At the institutional level, States could gain in efficiency and coherence by placing basic education under the supervision of a single ministry with increased attention to financing lower secondary education. 

At the operational level, it would be beneficial to ensure a coherent and continuous curriculum between primary and lower secondary schools; to adapt the profile of teachers, train them in sufficient quantity and optimize their management; to develop basic education institutions that encompass both primary and lower secondary schools; and to offer alternatives to quality vocational training. 

There is certainly no magic formula. Solutions will stem from a strategic reflection by each country to remove the various constraints on a successful transition to secondary education in order to offer all children 'a complete cycle of free and quality basic education', in accordance with the commitments of the Education 2030 Agenda.