Whenever I encounter high school graduates from Ghana or elsewhere on the African continent, I typically ask them a specific question — “What was the most important lesson you learned while in school?” I usually have no profound rationale behind this question besides a curiosity to understand what young people like me valued about their high school experience. Some of the responses that have stood out to me included building up self-esteem, developing leadership qualities, and learning to interact with others, skills that are central to future success. However, I have observed that not everyone I speak to has gleaned such lessons which is a testament to the shortfall in Ghana’s education system as well as that of other African countries in having a widespread impact on their students.
Like me, many young Africans consider high school to be a critical juncture in determining the road ahead. That is why that time period is so central to our success and as the future generation, this time is also intricately tied to the prosperity of the continent. Looking back on my own educational journey, I cannot help but consider my high school days as the most pivotal period in my academic life as I embarked on a metamorphosis in identifying what I wanted for my life. I started out with a wide array of dreams and remember naively buying into the insular expectation in Ghana of becoming a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. As I took courses in history and social studies, this evolved into a desire to become a journalist and consequently a career diplomat. It was not until my senior high school, after having gone through a myriad of personal and academic experiences that many of these earlier aspirations started coming together.
With recent advancements in artificial intelligence, education systems in Africa will have to adapt at equal measure to meet the challenges posed by this new wave which has been popularized as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). If the current state of education on the continent is anything to go by, African countries will be among the least prepared to deal with these challenges. There is undoubtedly an urgent need to radically change course and provide young people with the skills to succeed in a rapidly changing world. At the heart of these shifts must be a combined focus on soft and hard skills.
Over the last year, I have been part of a Mastercard Foundation’s upcoming report focusing on Secondary Education in Africa, looking closely at the future of work and what skills will allow vast numbers of African youth to succeed. A core component of this initiative has been the Youth Ambassadors program, a group of Africa’s youth including myself representing diverse demographics contributing their voice, experience, and expertise. SEA will culminate into a report geared towards influencing policy makers to make an emphatic commitment to reforming secondary school systems in light of the 4IR. Mastercard Foundation’s report on the topic will recommend forward-looking solutions and recommendations to make this a reality.
The many problems associated with secondary education are well documented. Gender biases that limit the participation of women, inadequate and often unqualified teaching staff, poor infrastructure, lack of support for students living with a disability, overcrowded classrooms, unavailability of equipment to support STEM education, poor teaching methods, and outdated curricular just to mention a few. With the competitive nature of university education in Ghana— and around Africa—secondary education should not be seen as a pathway to university alone. Young people want a secondary education that adequately prepares them for employment and/or entrepreneurship. We want our education to adequately equip us for challenges of today and those yet to come. The first step to making this a reality is addressing these deeply rooted problems that continue to plague secondary education around the continent.
These challenges are multifaceted and require solutions that approach the problem holistically. Any attempts at reform must be radical, bold and build on best practices from around the world.
In my next opinion piece, I will share my ideas for dealing with some of these challenges to harness the opportunity among the immense demographic of Africa’s youth.
AUTHOR: Joseph Opoku, Mastercard Foundation Youth Ambassador