The global education community is failing to focus on a critical issue: secondary education. Although secondary completion rates are not available for all countries, existing household surveys show an average completion rate of only 17 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.
Secondary education deserves the same kind of attention the international community has placed on primary education. The Education for All initiative that began in 1990 focused on increasing access to primary education. Significant resources have been targeted to primary education access and, in recent years, to educational quality in the primary grades. On the other end of the education spectrum, resources are increasing for tertiary and workforce development programs for postsecondary youth.
These efforts are important, but unfortunately, a serious gap in attention on — and funding for — secondary education has emerged. Without access to quality secondary education programs, investments in primary and tertiary education will be lost. Secondary education is the critical link between primary education and career and employment opportunities.
Particularly for girls, secondary education completion is a predictor for positive impacts on income, health and productivity. It is also the key to equipping students for the 21st century labor market. The lack of skilled labor often presents a significant obstacle for economic growth. Many nonformal education programs are meeting the need to teach workforce-relevant skills. However, there is too little attention paid to building these skills in the formal education sector through secondary education, where the largest number of youth can be served.
The gap in funding for secondary education is a looming crisis for the education sector. It comes at a time when many developing countries are facing dramatic increases in their youth populations. Rising enrollment and completion rates in primary education will only create more demand for secondary education. FHI 360’s Education Policy and Data Center projects that the number of students in lower secondary school in 63 of the world’s low and lower middle income countries is likely to increase by about 30 percent by 2025. Demand for secondary education is expected to increase even more sharply in countries where current secondary enrollment is particularly low. In Burkina Faso, Burundi and Côte d’Ivoire, where lower secondary gross enrollment rates are below 50 percent, the number of students seeking space in the secondary education system is expected to more than triple in the next 10 years.
As educators and other experts debate what is meant by “education for all” at the Comparative and International Education Society conference this week, it is critical that these discussions bring secondary education to the forefront. Along with greater funding, we need solutions to address teacher shortages and classroom facilities and to better use technology to expand reach and lower costs. We need to agree on the learning objectives that will better prepare young people with the workforce skills they need in a rapidly changing world. Today’s youth cannot wait for a solution. The time to invest in quality secondary education for young men and women is now.