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Curricula: Education must be relevant

By Ann Therese Ndong Jatta in Dakar
Posted on Monday, 21 September 2009 00:00

Some African countries are reforming their school curricula to meet new

demands, but still more must be done to prepare students for the future.

Aiming to be among the bright stars to access the higher education system, but forced to memorise facts and figures from overloaded curricula with outdated content, such is the reality in far too many developing countries today. On leaving education, students are then found to be insufficiently skilled to meet the demands of the world of work. There is a danger that African young people – half the continent’s population – could become frustrated with their education systems, especially at the post-primary level. Access to secondary education in Sub-Saharan Africa is lower than in any other region of the world and it is highly biased against the poor, with girls at particular disadvantage.

According to the 2009 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, on average only 17% of students complete the upper secondary cycle, while 13% repeat one year of school. Up to 78m young people of secondary school age are outside the secondary school system. This is also partly caused – and magnified – by the poor quality and relevance of educational provision. Issues of relevance, quality and equity in an expanded vision of basic education – covering pre-primary, primary and junior secondary education – are high on the agenda in Africa. Most experts agree that there is a serious mismatch between social expectations and needs and what education systems actually offer. The key challenge is to expand access and democratise education while ensuring quality learning opportunities through relevant and pertinent curricula.

The importance of curriculum reform is widely recognised. Many countries in Africa have attempted to make improvements, in line with global trends which emphasise competence-based, school-based and student-centred approaches, as well as the integration of cross-cutting issues such as peace, sustainable development and entrepreneurship education, creating new materials and introducing new approaches.

Knowledge and skills?

A growing number of countries – including South Africa, Rwanda and Tunisia – are moving away from over-loaded and out-dated content and are forging stronger links between technical and academic streams. Others – including Gambia, Ethiopia and Tanzania – have started the process of rationalising their curricula to focus on competences in key knowledge and skills areas. Ethiopia, for example, has introduced an ‘alternative basic education’ programme using low-cost community centres in remote areas aimed at helping 7-14-year-old children of pastoralists who may have missed out on primary school.

Further up the education ladder, African universities are also busy adapting their curricula to be more relevant to the world of work. Some, such as universities in Nigeria, are also keen to compete in international university rankings, despite the fact that their criteria often pay little heed to the specific curriculum needs of developing countries (read more about this on our special Education Blog at

Curriculum is at the very heart of the Basic Education in Africa Programme (BEAP), which is coordinated by the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in Africa, the UNESCO International Bureau of Education and the German aid agency GTZ. While advocating rights-based legislation, sound governance and finance mechanisms with sector-wide approaches, BEAP brings together policy-makers, curriculum developers, teacher trainers and communities to work out a common vision for reforming current educational settings.

Effective implementation remains a complex and delicate process. Getting results within the BEAP and other curriculum reform initiatives will ultimately depend on the joint efforts, convictions and perceptions of the different actors. In fact, the term ‘curriculum’ should be understood holistically, and curriculum development should be viewed as a fundamental education process involving all citizens and touching upon societal visions, public policies, teaching-learning practices and outcome assessment, to name a few.

Obviously, teachers – with their own social, political and cultural consciousness – will have a direct impact on how new curricula are implemented and how to transmit and assess knowledge, skills, attitudes and values. Teachers therefore need to have their capacities built to play their role in the new basic education orientation. In practice, teachers may be conservative, under-paid or work in difficult conditions. And it is for this reason that governments need to value and support the teaching profession, build the capacity of teachers and improve their working conditions to enable them to concretise curricular reforms.

Most importantly, learners should be at the centre of all considerations. For many of them, the frustrations they experience once they have entered school will negatively impact on their will and ability to learn, hampering lifelong learning opportunities and their fundamental human right to education. It is extremely important for schools to create effective learning environments through suitable curricula that teachers can meaningfully co-develop, and for learners to see the relevance and utility of the education they are being provided. Fundamentally, every education system must seek to respond to the question “Education for what and for whom?”

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