More African children are going to school – but is quantity a distraction from quality?

If African pupils get a quality good education, it can benefit their long-term health. Noor Khamis/Reuters

In recent decades, sub-Saharan Africa has experienced some of the most dramatic increases in primary school enrolment rates of any region worldwide.

Though there is still room for progress the fact remains that more children are going to school, adolescents are staying in school and girls are increasingly enjoying the same educational opportunities as boys. These are all reasons to celebrate.

But does more school mean more learning and better lives?

Researchers and policymakers have become concerned that there’s an unintended consequence of the increase in the number of children going to school: a decline in the quality of education and the well-known benefits of education.

As more students enrol they are being squeezed into existing schools rather than new institutions being built. When there are more children in a single classroom, already scarce educational resources are spread thin and learning may suffer.

Malawi’s story

Malawi, a small country in southeast Africa, is a case in point. By all standards, Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite its economic challenges the government took the bold step in the 1990s of eliminating all primary school fees.

The policy, part of the Free Primary Education Initiative, took effect in 1994 and had a large, immediate impact: the number of Malawian children participating in school increased from 1.9 million to 3.1 million in a single year.

The initiative undoubtedly gave more Malawians the opportunity to go to school. But questions have lingered about whether their education was of sufficient quality, and in turn, will lead to advantages in adulthood. The children who started school around the time the policy was put into place are now young adults and recent evidence confirms that despite having gone to school, many lack basic academic skills.

Take reading skills, for example. A recent study in the Balaka district in southern Malawi found that less than half (40%) of young adults who completed the final year of primary school (grade 8) could fully read and comprehend a simple sentence in Chichewa, Malawi’s official and most widely spoken language. Equally striking is that only three quarters of young adults who made it to secondary school (grade 9-12) could fully read and comprehend basic Chichewa.

As this graph shows, although children in Malawi attend school they are not necessarily learning the basics - like reading. Smith-Greenaway, E. (2015). Are literacy skills associated with young adults' health in Africa? Evidence from Malawi. Social Science & Medicine, 127, 124-133.

Does limited learning shape lives?

If young Malawians did not learn basic skills like reading, will this disadvantage them in the long term? Recent evidence suggests the answer is yes – at least in terms of their health. Statistical models which account for other sources of health inequality show that young adults who lack reading skills are more likely to experience a prolonged sickness and overall worse health than their peers who mastered greater reading skills.

Good health in early life is essential to maintain well-being throughout adulthood and into old age, so even though these less literate young adults have gone to school they are likely to face health struggles as they age.

Of course, the experiences in Malawi are not representative of the entire continent. The development community agrees that the way the Free Primary Education policy was implemented in Malawi – quickly and with few extra resources – weakened an already strained school system.

In other African countries, the expansion of school access may have not sacrificed school quality to the extent it did in Malawi, suggesting that more young adults may have successfully learned how to read in school.

Some education still better than none

There is also reason to believe that even if it is low quality, educational expansion is beneficial. Research has shown that the benefits from education have a spill over effect. Even if a young adult didn’t learn how to read, living in a family, neighbourhood or country where others have done so may still shape their lives in fundamental ways, including their health knowledge, fertility, and their children’s health.

But increasing the quality of education will ensure that expanding access to schooling is as beneficial as possible. Learning how to read doesn’t have to be restricted to the formal school system.

Africa has a long, rich literary tradition and other institutions could play a role in promoting literacy. Increasing investments in innovative learning projects that can operate outside the formal school system may go a long way in promoting literacy in the region.