Zambia: What Comes After Universal Primary Education?

Village school class in Zambia. Photo by Jurvetson on Flickr (CC

Village school class in Zambia. Photo by Jurvetson on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Looking at African literacy rate rankings shared by The African Economist last month, 37 of Africa's 52 countries now score above 50 percent, while 17 countries now score above 70 percent.

For a continent that is ranked the poorest to have such relatively high scores, there is hope that education and literacy levels could keep soaring with sustained efforts after the 2015 deadline passes for achieving eight UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), including universal primary education.

Certainly Zambia, which ranks 17th in Africa with just over 80 percent literacy levels, could climb the ladder if the current efforts of government, non-governmental organisations and individuals to improve education bear fruit.

Despite educational advances and an increase in the number of universities in Zambia, the lower education ladder is still problematic with many pupils failing to move up in the educational system.

School, and then what?

An OECD paper outlining recommendations on education for a post-2105 development framework suggests that educational targets and measurements are important once more universal access to primary and secondary schools has been achieved. The OECD notes that despite gains in school enrollment and attendance around the world since the MDGs were launched in 2000, many young people still leave school without the knowledge and skills they need to find jobs and thrive.

In Zambia last year, around 60,000 pupils failed grade seven out of 337,706 who sat for the exams.
Commenting on a story about grade seven results in the Lusaka Times, a reader, Chongo B.C, wrote:

The grade seven results for 2012 have been very impressive as compared to the past years. This has been a tremendous improvement. However,the Government through the Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Childhood should make sure that it provides adequate classrooms for these pupils to learn effectively. Above all, it should reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in classrooms in order to provide conducive learning environment. This will ensure quality education and productive citizens who will be useful in the society.

Another reader, Xhoisan X questioned one of the most touted policies by successive governments:

Please educate me. I was made to understand that Zambia now has compulsory education up to secondary school. So what are these results [the education minister] is announcing?

While the primary school progression rate may look bad, it is the sieve at grade nine that sends the most pupils into the wilderness. According to the Times of Zambia, only 100,824 candidates passed out of the 291,018 who sat for the examinations in 2012.

There are a number of factors that affects pupil progression to higher education but the biggest problem appears to be lack of classroom space at the lower levels with a teacher/pupil ratio in Zambia of 1 to 63 for 2011 according to the World Bank.

The government has embarked on building more classroom space at primary, secondary and tertiary levels to absorb as many pupils and students as possible. Opening a school in rural Zambia last year, President Michael Sata said:

Our aspiration is to put together a well-organized, valuable and reliable public education system through substantial investments in educational infrastructure. As Government we have an obligation to structure and shape the future of our general populace, particularly the younger citizens, who constitute a greater part of our population.

President Sata also laid out his government’s plans to build the universities in an inaugural speech to parliament in 2011, and he has so far commissioned the construction of Palabana University, formerly a dairy training institute, Chalimbana University, formerly a teacher in-service training school, and Robert Makasa Univesity, formerly Lubwa Mission. These new universities will exist in addition to three existing public universities, University of Zambia, Copperbelt University and Mulungushi University.

Although the government is making an effort, there are many challenges that make gaining access to education impossible for many people, among them the severe poverty that afflicts many households.

Looking to the future

As the OECD notes, while the importance of universal access to primary education would be retained, a post 2015 education-related goal is likely to incorporate the secondary education level and include a stronger focus on learning. The OECD itself supports a Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) where countries can measure results in comparison with one another.

While its not clear what the Zambian government would do to meet such standards, at least infrastructurally a start has been made. The construction of primary and secondary schools would ideally match the level at which public universities are being created, coupled with the training and recruitment of more teachers.

At the individual level, realising the predicament of children from poverty-stricken homes, a Zambian living in the United States, Isabella Mukanda Shamambo, has established an education centre called Beyond Universal Primary Education for All going by the acronym, BUPE (meaning “gift” in some Zambian languages). Introducing the project on the Community Prayer Centers website, she writes:

The near success of one of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals has left a generation of kids with 7th grade education roaming the streets of many major cities, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, the need has arisen for a universal Secondary education which most cannot afford. Kids roam the street of Ndola [city in Zambia] selling plastic bag in the hope of going back to 8th grade. Others wander the streets, hope of a better future completely lost.

The most progressive policy the Zambian government announced in 2012 were plans to upgrade 1,570 so-called community schools which are run mostly by NGOs to cater for vulnerable groups from poorer areas of urban and peri-urban areas. This is likely to help contribute to the attainment of MDGs and beyond.

Optimistically speaking, with the achievement of universal primary education around the corner, in Zambia in particular and Africa in general, we should prepare to take a confident leap beyond the 2015 Millennium Development Goals to focus on improving the curriculum and promote higher levels of learning.

This post is part of a series by Global Voices bloggers for the OECD engaging with post-2015 ideas for development worldwide. The OECD is not responsible for the content in these posts.

See the Wikiprogress post-2015 portal for more on this topic.


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