Martial Dembélé is Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations at the University of Montreal. He specializes in school improvement, the comparative study of teacher education, and international development in education. Prior to joining the University of Montreal, he co-directed the Paul-Gérin-Lajoie Interuniversity Center for International Development in Education (CIPGL) based at the University of Quebec at Montreal. He is the co-author of a recent publication in IIEP’s Fundamentals of Educational Planning series: Global Perspectives on Teacher Learning: Improving Policy and Practice
In his introduction: QUALITY EDUCATION IN AFRICA – INTERNATIONAL COMMITMENTS, LOCAL CHALLENGES AND RESPONSES, Martial Dembele and Joan Oviawe pointed the issues in education
The Education for All (EFA) campaign emerged as a global imperative as a result of the International Conference on Education held in Jomtien in 1990. Ten years later, at the Dakar Summit, it was established that remarkable progress had been accomplished in terms of access (e.g. increase in gross enrolment ratios and in the number of literate adults), but that quality, as measured through various indicators, left much to be desired. Such indicators included alarmingly low student achievement and high drop out rates, resulting in system inefficiency. Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) was reported to be the region where the picture was the gloomiest. Indeed, various evaluations showed that in this part of Africa, most students left primary school without mastering the 3 Rs.1 In addition, school did not seem to help pupils ‘‘learn how to learn’’. These findings are all the more preoccupying as primary schooling is an involuntary terminal stage of education for many children in SSA. In other words, these children are potentially the future illiterate adults. Worth mentioning also is the fact that grade repetition and drop out are estimated to consume about 25% of the financial resources allocated to primary education in this region.
In response to the foregoing, the international community pledged to support the achievement of quality universal primary education (UPE) in lowincome countries by 2015, especially in SSA. Five years after Dakar, there were indications that progress was still very slow with respect to quality (see for instance UNESCO 2004). Two years earlier, in the framework of its 2003 biennale, ADEA commissioned an ambitious study of quality improvement in basic education in SSA. This study helped to identify knowledge gaps, new challenges, promising policies, programmes and practices, as well as unresolved questions (see Verspoor 2005). ADEA subsequently opted to maintain quality as a key focus of its activities, while remaining cognizant of the fact that a large number of eligible children in the region are still deprived of their right to formal basic education. In fact, the great challenge that SSA faces is to attend to access and quality simultaneously, as the two sides of the same coin, in a context of economic hardships, inadequate numbers of (qualified) teachers, inappropriate classrooms, and unavailability of learning materials.
The challenge facing African education systems is further compounded by the fact that universal enrollment entails broadening access and quality learning opportunities to the ‘‘hard to reach’’, i.e. remote rural populations, nomadic populations (in some countries), and children with special educational needs. Factoring in the increasing number of children infected or affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic makes the challenge even greater. This in turn increases marginal costs and heightens the issue of relevance. Yet another aspect of the challenge is the difficulty encountered in attempts to enlarge the scale of promising programmes and practices in response to the problems undermining the systems (see Samoff et al. 2005).
The distinct problems of Africa and its key role in reaching the Dakar objectives and the educational Millennium Development Goals warrant the geographical focus of the present special issue of the International Review of Education (IRE).2 More specifically, this special issue seeks to contribute to the prevailing discourse on quality education in the continent, in a non prescriptive but critical fashion.