The movement for global health equity has done a great deal to move us towards a reality where all people have access to good health. The strength of this movement lies in understanding that our health systems are deeply flawed; they will not work if they do not recognize that what keeps people from good health is neither natural phenomena that we must accept, nor is it individual failures. On the contrary, it is inequity born out of histories of subjugation and resource extraction that favour the obscene wealth of some while rendering many vulnerable to ill health and premature death. It should be obvious that the idea, applied by the health equity movement, that in order to make progress towards good health for all we must focus on the most vulnerable and meet them where they are can, and should, be applied to all other inequities we identify in our systems.
Consider education. Education systems in Africa, not unlike its health systems, were built to reinforce hierarchies and indoctrinate indigenous people into participating in their own oppression. It is not so crazy, then, that after the end of formal colonization, Africans were left with institutions that were centred around colonial activity both in their physical locations and in their goals and methods. It would, of course, be absurd to suggest that Africans shut down all schooling and return to the drawing board in order to correct this problem; however, we can start by taking a page from the health equity movement and, first, understanding how certain barriers conspire to keep the most vulnerable among us from accessing education and, by extension, denying them the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in this world.
Western volunteers who have flocked into Africa en masse to build schools and teach show that one of the longest-running barriers to education access on the continent has been infrastructure. We have all heard of the “gaps” in the education system. One such gap is the lack of adequate classrooms that can fit our growing number of young people; another is the shortage of teacher training schools which makes it difficult to train qualified teachers fast enough; there’s another shortage: of basic materials like computers (even access to pens and paper in the recent past was a serious concern). Less acknowledged, but equally important, is the lack of content in indigenous languages that has made fluency in a colonial language a standard requirement for teaching and learning.
So, is overcoming these “gaps” in education impossible? If this past year has taught us anything, it is that a lot of what we have previously been told is impossible is indeed possible. We have seen, throughout the pandemic, a range of innovative solutions employed to minimize the effects of physical distance as a barrier to access to services. Much of these have required engaging the full power of digital technology. It is a shame that similar efforts have not been previously undertaken to make education accessible to all since using these same technologies to create and deliver online learning resources that are contextual and appropriate can be done in less time than it takes to build a classroom and train a teacher.
However, even after harnessing the power of digital technology to overcome the barrier of physical distance and learners have access to education, the disturbing rate of school attrition, especially among young girls and students from poorer communities, would constitute an unaddressed “gap”.
It is not enough to simply put education materials in front of learners; we would also need to remove barriers to active learning. Research into learning has given us evidence-based ingredients that facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Some of these include safety, security, health; the support to overcome challenges when they arise; and access to diverse and contextual learning materials. Digital technology can help us with the last two; however, in order to extend safety, security, and health to every learner, we must get a bit more creative and, especially, a lot more kind.
In order to holistically address the safety, security, and health needs of young learners, we need to have supportive services/systems in every environment that they interact with, i.e., the home, community, and school. Take a look at teenage pregnancy as an example. If we want to address the alarming rates of school attrition due to teen pregnancy, we must support families with the information, capacity, and time to discuss sexual and reproductive health with the children in their care. We also need to do the same at the community level in case families are unable to do this, and in the event that a child manages to slip through the family and the community, we must have comprehensive sexual and reproductive health support at the school. Essentially, we have to ensure that anyone the child comes into contact with has the capacity to support their wellbeing or, at the very least, point them to someone who can.
After we have made education accessible and made environments supportive of learning and growth, we are still left with the situation where technological advancements render skills that took years to certify obsolete overnight. The rapidly changing labour market is a phenomenon that many governments are grappling with. A lot of the proposed solutions usually focus on STEM education at the expense of the humanities, a risky gamble. Our education institutions and structures can be optimized by focusing on learning skills and theories of knowledge so that students know how and where to look for information when they need to learn new concepts or skills, and media literacy so they can build the ability to discern information that is relevant from what is irrelevant to their learning. Basically, we need to move on from focusing most of our limited resources on trying to produce people who can do specific jobs to building people who know how to learn and apply their knowledge and skills towards their own growth and the development of their communities.
In order to make meaningful movement towards a world where all of us can thrive, we must recognize that the learners we are trying to educate exist in a world with real inequities that we must consider. It is past time we emancipated ourselves from the one-size-fits-all models we inherited from our colonizers because they were not designed FOR us, and therefore cannot meet our needs. We must think outside the four walls of the colonial classroom and reacquaint ourselves with indigenous systems of knowledge generation and transfer because, only by making use of all the resources, knowledge, and skills we have, and focusing on meeting the most vulnerable where they are, can we ensure that ALL of our people get a chance to build lives that meet their needs and the needs of their communities, countries, and our Africa.