The Early Grade Bottlenecks and Low Completion Rates in Africa

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Africa School

Countries in Africa are facing a conundrum according to a recent World Bank flagship report, “Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa.” Over the past 10 to 25 years, many have made tremendous progress in getting children into classrooms. Yet, while total enrollment has increased, in many of these same countries primary school completion rates have not.

For Benin, Burundi, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Rwanda, and Uganda, which vividly demonstrate this conundrum, the peak decade-long growth in the gross enrollment ratio (GER), over the past 25 years, was an astounding 45 points on average (using official statistics as reported by UNESCO in its downloadable data site, This is equivalent to growing one’s GER from, say, 75 percent to 120 percent in just 10 years. And, on average, the GER has remained at 130 percent for the past five years. However, over those same five years, the primary completion rate has remained “stuck” at about 70 percent.

Why has this problem persisted for so many years? There are a few addressable challenges: poor preparation for school, irregular attendance low learning levels in the key first years of school. Children arrive at school unprepared and then, due to inadequately-designed and implemented lesson plans, reading materials, and poor teaching, are exposed to schools where they do not learn.  They drop out intermittently during the school year – for many reasons, but partly because they do not comprehend the lessons- and cannot catch up when they return. This results in many children getting “trapped” in the first few grades. They are trying to learn, repeat grades, aging inside the school system, and then drop out at the age of 10 to 12, frustrated and with little to show for their, and society’s effort.

The early grade enrollment “bulge” is apparent to anyone who has visited African primary schools.  Classes in grades 1 and 2 are overcrowded with class sizes ranging from 70 to 120, sometimes even more; there are far fewer children in subsequent grades.  What is perhaps not realized is the seriousness of the problem and how its persistence is destroying the future of the majority of children.

The graph below shows how many children there are in each grade for the five countries noted, relative to the size of the student population that should be in school, and relative to the ideal proportion. This is only an approximation, but it makes the point clear: there are many more children in the first few grades than there ought to be, and enrollment does not drop below the number of kids that ought to be in school until, on average, grade 5. For example, the number of children in Grade 1 is between 1.5 to 2 times the number of children who should be in Grade 1, based on the official age of entry.  The more overcrowded the class, the less children learn, leading them to repeat, creating a vicious cycle.  And this situation has persisted for over a decade.


What can be done to strengthen the foundations?

  • Start with building awareness. Many government officials and development partners in Africa are unaware of these issues. And if they are, they do not understand them deeply enough. For instance, the bulge is often attributed to late or early starting, and the sharp drop in enrollment between Grade 1 and Grade 2 is attributed to children dropping out. While the age of entry is a factor, the real problem is that there is irregular attendance and high levels of informal repetition that are not captured by official statistics. Latin American countries faced the same problem in the 1990s and building such awareness amongst officials was critical in addressing it.  Since the mid-nineties, South Africa has also adopted systematic policies to reduce the bulge.
  • Ensure solid instruction in the early grades with a focus on more direct teaching methods, well-planned and well-paced lessons, plentiful and varied learning materials in a language the children understand, teaching in that language if possible, and support for teachers who often simply do not know how to teach reading and mathematics. This includes the idea of starting and teaching at the right level (building skills gradually, including pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills) instead of shocking students by assuming that children know the basics (e.g., because they have been read to, or grew up in a print-rich environment, as may be the case in urban areas).
  • Early childhood development options that focus on oral language development and gradual socialization into school, Target free provision on the poorer 40 percent or so of the population and involve parents to supplement oral language development and support the child’s activities in school.
  • Financial support especially in the later grades and if there is evidence that there are economic barriers to completing school.
  • Clear policies about repetition. More emphasis on controlling both official and unofficial repetition, while at the same time not using automatic promotion as an excuse to pass along children who are not learning. Use simple data systems and simple, ideally formative, learning assessments to track under-performance clearly.


Sajitha Bashir

Former Advisor, Office of the Global Director of the Education Practice

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