Africa Day and the AU’s Year of Education: Prioritizing Foundational Learning for a Brighter Future

Africa Day and the AU’s Year of Education: Prioritizing Foundational Learning for a Brighter Future

By: Kirstin Buchanan

Each year, May 25 marks Africa Day – a time to celebrate the rich culture, traditions, and diversity of the continent and its people. As a member of the African diaspora raised in the Caribbean, Africa Day is an opportunity for me to celebrate the strong cultural identity and common heritage that intricately connect us and an important reminder that together, we can lay the foundations for a brighter future.

This year, the African Union declared 2024 the “Year of Education,” calling on governments to accelerate progress toward achieving regional and global education targets.

With nearly 90% of 10-year-olds in Sub-Saharan Africa unable to read and understand a simple text, this declaration brings renewed hope for unlocking Africa’s immense potential, emphasizing the critical role of education. For the Luminos Fund, it underscores the importance of our education mission: to ensure all children have equal access to joyful, foundational learning.

Luminos student in The Gambia writes in his student workbook during class.

In The Gambia, Luminos student Ebrima practices his handwriting during class. Learning to write is a critical part of foundational literacy. (Photo: Lena Nian for the Luminos Fund) 

A Day of Celebration and Reflection

Africa Day commemorates the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) on May 25, 1963. Since its founding, the OAU, known today as the African Union (AU), has served as the pillar of regional cooperation, focused on achieving shared development goals and promoting peace and stability through unity. Africa Day has become a day of both celebration and reflection on the region’s progress toward these goals.

Education is a crucial piece of the puzzle on Africa’s path to continued prosperity. The Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 16-25), adopted by AU heads of state and government, provides the framework for transforming education systems and equipping Africa’s youth to become agents of change for advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The theme for the AU’s Year of Education, “Educate and Skill Africa for the 21st Century,” is a timely reaffirmation of these commitments. Multiple years of compounding crises, from pandemics to climate change, have reversed much of the continent’s progress in education and underscored the urgency for building more equitable education systems that are resilient to future crises.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, one in five primary-school-aged children are still out of school. Even beyond access, one in four children does not complete primary school, and most children enrolled in school are not learning. At most, only one in five children achieves the minimum proficiency level in reading upon completing primary education (UNESCO).

Prioritizing foundational learning for all children is one of the most important tools for addressing the learning crisis. With strong foundations in literacy and numeracy, children and youth are empowered to access a world of knowledge and ideas that will enable them to build higher-order skills and unlock pathways to improved livelihoods. For the most marginalized children, the ability to read, write, and do math builds belief in their own potential, resulting in the confidence and motivation to succeed in future learning environments.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, Luminos is helping out-of-school children get a second chance at education. I fondly remember one of my first experiences entering a Luminos classroom in Ethiopia – students’ faces lit up with joy as they practiced counting play money through a song, sung to the tune of a local nursery rhyme. Throughout the room, an array of colorful artwork, including numbers and the letters of the alphabet, bring life to the otherwise barren thatch and bamboo walls. By focusing on joyful, foundational learning, we provide children with a safe and inclusive environment where they can feel comfortable and enjoy the learning process. This, in turn, helps develop a love of learning in students that continues well beyond their time in the Luminos program.

Indeed, this was the experience of Luminos alumna, Degnesh, who is now proudly enrolled in grade 4 at her local government school. After many years out of school, Degnesh enrolled in the Luminos catch-up program in 2021. There, she built foundational reading, writing, and math skills, as well as her love for learning.  “When I entered the Luminos classroom, I could not identify letters,” says Degnesh. “Now I’m reading at home and at school. The program made me love education.”

Luminos alumna Degnesh outside her classroom holding her school books.

Luminos alumna, Degnesh, says, “I was sad to leave [the Luminos program], but at the same time, I was very proud of myself. Now I have the attitude that I can achieve anything I want.” (Photo: Michael Stulman/Luminos Fund) 

Beyond the individual impacts, strong foundational learning systems serve as the cornerstone for building flourishing societies by promoting productive citizenship, sustainable development, gender equality, improved health, social cohesion, and stability. In the words of the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed, “Investing in education is the greatest investment we can make in our common future, in peace, and sustainable development, and particularly in gender equality.

 A Critical Inflection Point

Addressing the learning crisis has long been an expressed priority for African governments. Many governments have endorsed the Commitment to Action on Foundational Learning, a global initiative launched at the 2022 United Nation’s Transforming Education Summit (TES), signaling their commitment to ensure foundational learning for all children and advance progress toward SDG 4 targets. The AU’s declaration of 2024 as the Year of Education presents an opportune, yet critical moment for governments to further build on these commitments and prioritize foundational learning in national policy agendas.

African governments and ministries of education can chart a path to a brighter future for generations to come by investing in strengthening education systems. While this takes many forms, evidence-based strategies include prioritizing implementation of structured pedagogies and instructional methods, ongoing teaching development and coaching, and robust monitoring and evaluation.

In addition to strong political leadership, substantial collaboration will be required.

SDG 4: Quality Education

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Targets:

  • 4.1 Free primary and secondary education
  • 4.2 Equal access to quality pre-primary education
  • 4.3 Equal access to affordable technical, vocational and higher education
  • 4.4 Increase the number of people with relevant skills for financial success
  • 4.5 Eliminate all discrimination in education
  • 4.6 Universal literacy and numeracy
  • 4.7 Education for sustainable development and global citizenship
  • 4.8 Build and upgrade inclusive and safe schools
  • 4.9 Expand higher education scholarships for developing countries
  • 4a Increase the supply of qualified teachers in developing countries

Education leaders and experts from Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia during an inter-ministerial exchange facilited by Luminos in Ethiopia. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund) 

Through my experience at Luminos, I have learned that there is power in unity – no one country can solve the learning crisis alone. This notion of strength in unity was the impetus for a recent inter-ministerial exchange facilitated by Luminos, which convened a range of education leaders and experts from Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia for a series of discussions on advancing foundational learning in Sub-Saharan Africa. This power in unity is also the very pillar on which the African Union was formed.

 This Africa Day, let us celebrate the unity and collaboration that has paved the way for the continent’s progress to date. Let us also unite in our commitment to work together to unlock the light of learning in every child through joyful, foundational learning, so they may bring to fruition the AU’s aspirations to transform Africa into the global powerhouse of the future.

Kirstin Buchanan

Kirstin Buchanan is the Communications and Advocacy Manager at the Luminos Fund where she amplifies student voices and program stories, in addition to helping drive content, messaging, and fundraising strategy. Kirstin leads the development and implementation of the communication strategy relating to the organization’s advocacy and government engagement work. She also leads engagement with the Luminos Fund Advisory Board.  

Addressing the Learning Crisis: 3 Takeaways from a Government Learning Exchange

Addressing the Learning Crisis: 3 Takeaways from a Government Learning Exchange

The Luminos Fund builds strong government partnerships based on collaboration and deep trust to scale our impact and promote systemic change.  In each country, Luminos works closely with ministries of education to strengthen education systems, share best practices, and build capacity to bring joyful, transformative learning to millions of vulnerable, out-of-school children.

Leveraging this partnership ethos, Luminos and the Ethiopian Ministry of Education jointly hosted an inter-ministerial exchange visit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in March 2024. The visit convened a range of education leaders and experts from Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia for a series of discussions on advancing foundational learning in Sub-Saharan Africa. The visit also provided an opportunity to forge the new connections necessary to develop bold responses to the challenge before us all—addressing the global learning crisis.

Despite significant progress in expanding access to the classroom in recent years, far too many children fail to learn even the most foundational skills of reading, writing, and basic math. In Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 90% of children do not learn to read by age 10. Education systems must undergo fundamental shifts to ensure that every child develops the basic skills they need to succeed, and governments need to prioritize foundational learning.

During the inter-ministerial exchange visit, participants discussed the learning crisis in Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia, and identified evidence-informed approaches that improve learning outcomes and ensure learning for all students. Here are three takeaways from the discussion:

1. The learning crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa goes beyond access

Despite commendable efforts in Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia to expand education access, millions of children remain out of school, often due to a variety of socio-economic barriers including poverty, child labor, and displacement. UNESCO research suggests that children and parents’ negative perceptions of the return on investment for attending school play a considerable role in the out-of-school challenge in low-income contexts. While the rates of out-of-school children remain a key concern, the quality of education for children within the school system is equally alarming. Among 10-year-olds in Sub-Saharan Africa, 70% of children are in school but not learning (World Bank).

2. Language of instruction is a complex, but necessary factor to consider for ensuring learning for all students

Mrs. Catherine Appiah Pinkrah, Executive Director of Ghana’s Complementary Education Agency, contributes to the discussion following a presentation on the learning crisis in Ethiopia.

Luminos’ government partners in Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia have each adopted strategies to account for language diversity through the expanded use of mother tongue or area language as the language of instruction. For instance, Ethiopia is an ethnically and linguistically diverse country, with over 80 languages and dialects across its different regions. The language of instruction used in each school is determined by the primary ethnic group present in each community. Students are encouraged to use their mother tongue language in classrooms first, before being introduced to additional languages including national and regional languages. However, factors such as migration and displacement, which have been exacerbated by increased conflict in recent years, further diversify communities and pose key challenges for mother tongue-based multilingual education. Ghana faces a similar challenge where many children, parents, and teachers have relocated to regions or communities where the mother tongue language is different.

3. There is need for greater government investments in foundational learning

In Ghana, the share of the education budget allocated to basic education declined from 39.2% in 2019 to 20% in 2023, with tertiary education receiving the largest proportion of funding among basic, secondary, and tertiary education levels (UNICEF). This trend is similar in Ethiopia and The Gambia. Committing to prioritizing foundational learning in the early years can be a powerful approach to tackling the learning crisis– with long-term benefits for preparing children to obtain higher-level knowledge and competencies in later years.

Dr. Belay Hagos Hailu (center), Associate Professor of Education and Director of the Institute of Educational Research at Addis Ababa University, and Luminos Adivsory Board Member, shakes hands with Dr. Alemayehu Hailu Gebre (right), Luminos Senior Director of Programs in Ethiopia. (Photo by Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)

At Luminos, we believe equipping children with foundational learning skills is essential to unlocking a child’s full potential. The Luminos program teaches children to read, write, and do math – to learn how to learn – through a joyful, structured pedagogy that meets children where they are in their learning journey. In just one school year, Liberian children enrolled in the Luminos program learn 90% of what the average Liberian will learn in their lifetime.

If the international development community is to address the urgent learning crisis facing children, effective collaboration and coordination between stakeholders is essential. Through partnerships with governments, Luminos distills effective teaching and learning strategies within education systems, in alignment with the national education priorities in each country. Indeed, a key objective of the African Union’s declaration of 2024 as the Year of Education, under the theme “Educate an African fit for the 21st Century: Building resilient education systems for increased access to inclusive, lifelong, quality, and relevant learning in Africa,” is to galvanize collective action towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) across the continent.

This exchange visit was a timely effort to not only share best practices, but also to advocate for effective and proven solutions to ensure learning for all children.

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+1 781 333 8317   info@luminosfund.org

The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

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