Workshop: Equipping African Primary School Learners for their Future

On Thursday, February 4, the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center convened a high-level group of US and foreign government officials, scholars, and representatives of civil society for a day-long symposium on the state of primary education in Africa. The workshop reviewed a report on the same subject by Africa Center Senior Fellow the Honorable Constance Berry Newman, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, which offers policy recommendations on how the United States and its international partners can best support African governments to make much-needed reforms and investment in primary education.

The day opened with a welcome by Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe and Africa Center Director J. Peter PhamThe Right Honorable Paul, Baron Boateng, PC,  gave the keynote address. Lord Boateng, who has held a number of positions in British politics including as Chief Secretary of the Treasury and High Commissioner to South Africa, was the first person of African descent to ever serve in the cabinet of the United Kingdom, when he was appointed in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s first slate of ministers.

In his remarks, Boateng laid out what he saw as the most significant issues hampering quality primary education in Africa, including a lack of data, ambiguous or unclear targets, insufficient resources, and ideological conflicts between the public and private sectors. In addition to developing basic academic skills, including reading, writing, and arithmetic, Boateng stressed the importance of what pioneer Ghanaian educator Dr. James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey called  the “three H’s”—education of the “head,” “hand,” and “heart.” He noted that integrating wisdom, technical or vocational skills, and civic values into traditional schooling is vital for molding the next generation of African learners. 
Pictured (left to right): Dr. J. Peter Pham, The Right Honorable Paul, Baron Boateng, PC, and the Honorable Constance Berry Newman

A first panel, moderated by Pham, discussed the history and background of primary education in Africa and included contributions from Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and former President of Spelman College and Bennet College; the Honorable Vivian Lowery Derryck, President and CEO of the Bridges Institute and former Assistant Administrator for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); and Amini Kajunju, President and CEO of the Africa-America Institute. This discussion underscored primary education’s unique role as springboard for both individual success and broader community development. In particular, participants stressed the importance of quality teaching and providing incentives to improve levels of instruction. 
Pictured (left to right):Chloë McGrath, Douglas Coltart, and Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole 

This was followed by a second panel on factors impacting quality primary education, moderated by Africa Center Deputy Director Bronwyn Bruton. It featured presentations by Julie Hanson Swanson, Deputy Chief of Education for the Africa Bureau at the US Agency for International Development, and Dr. Justin Sandefur, Senior Fellow at Center for Global Development. Panelists focused on the barriers that impact access to quality education—including challenges faced by girls and children with disabilities. The discussion also challenged the conventional wisdom to increase funding for primary education programs, noting that—if implementation is weak—additional resources alone do not translate into superior educational outcomes.

Pictured: The Honorable Vivian Lowery Derryck

A final panel, moderated by Newman, focused on the elements of effective primary education. To open the panel, the school model from Morocco was highlighted through a film, The Palm Grove School, directed by Jacques Renoir and produced by Dounia Benjelloun, winner of the 2013 Cannes Gold Dolphin Award for short documentary.

The panel featured remarks by H.E. Hassana Alidou, Ambassador to the United States from the Republic of Niger and former Regional Director at UNESCO, and Nathalis Wamba, Professor at Queens College of Education at the City University of New York. Participants focused on the importance of making education culturally appropriate—which often means educating children in their mother tongue—and discussed how successful educational models can be scaled up across a diverse continent. Participants agreed that education is inherently political and, while it can offers great opportunity to students, it can equally be used to perpetuate exclusion and inequality.

Participants at the workshop received a congratulatory note from former First Lady Laura Bush, highlighting her belief in quality primary education in Africa. As she noted, “When children are educated, and we have adequate resources, they are put on a path to success.”

The workshop was made possible by generous support from the BMCE Bank of Africa.