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‘Soft’ skills can power up Africa’s youth


Kim Kerr

WHEN university students took to the streets in 2016 as part of the #FeesMustFall protest movement, the “decolonisation of the curriculum” was among the movement’s chief concerns.

It was a pivotal moment in South Africa’s history — young people rising to demand quality and accessible education.

But a crucial question was missing from the debate over fees and curricular relevance: How can changes to higher education empower Africa’s youth to drive the continent’s economic transformation?

In Africa, the question is no longer if students are taught but what they are taught. Unfortunately, although access to education has improved significantly in recent decades, school curricula have changed little since the colonial era, when secondary education was an elite privilege designed to advance the careers of a select few.

Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programmes have also suffered from neglect. Today, these initiatives are marked by outdated courses and rote learning methods, which fail to prepare young people for the demands of the 21st-century job market.

The issue goes beyond traditional components of the curriculum such as mathematics, science and languages. There is also a deficiency in critical “soft” skills such as communication, teamwork and problem solving, which enable young people to become adaptable, lifelong learners. The mastery of soft skills correlates with improved outcomes in school, work and life.

Until recently, training in soft skills had not been integrated into formal education systems on the continent, but that is changing. Across Africa, secondary schools and TVET systems are transforming themselves to prepare young minds with the skills they need to make the transition from school to employment, and to become engaged citizens.

These adjustments are coming at a critical time for Africa, where many countries are experiencing a demographic dividend of declining fertility rates and rising productivity. In particular, these changes mean more opportunities for young people as they prepare to enter the job market. But to succeed on the job, they must have the skills and education that a modern economy requires.

At the MasterCard Foundation, we have put together a blueprint, called Skills at Scale, to help African educators to revitalise their curricula to capitalise more effectively on the economic potential of the youth.

One of the continent’s most successful efforts already under way is the United States Agency for International Development-funded Akazi Kanoze Youth Livelihoods Project, designed by the Education Development Centre (EDC) in Boston.

Akazi Kanoze epitomises how a small initiative can catalyse wider education sector reform by emphasising links to local employers that provide access to entry-level jobs, internships and apprenticeships. The focus on personal development, interpersonal communication and leadership training has ensured that students are well equipped to enter the labour market after graduating.

The Rwandan government recently integrated Akazi Kanoze’s approach in the national curriculum to equip secondary and TVET students with the soft skills they require to succeed. National exams in the 2018-2019 academic year will reflect the new competency-based curriculum.

Since 2009, Akazi Kanoze training has prepared more than 37?000 young people for work, with more than 65% of participants in the initial round of training employed six months after graduation. Based on the success of integrating soft skills into the curriculum in Rwanda, the MasterCard Foundation and EDC will launch a similar programme in Senegal later this year.

Case studies from Skills at Scale highlight six components to a successful skills training initiative. These include an enabling policy environment, in which the government sets clear goals for education sector reform; strong political champions expressing vocal backing for these changes; wide stakeholder engagement, especially in the design and implementation phases of the reform; decentralisation of authority for education; flexibility on the part of donors; and the ability to measure the impact of the changes on youth employment and entrepreneurship.

Change is not without challenges. Adapting models of skills training to vastly different education systems will take time. It will also be difficult to ensure that intensive training models reach all young people, including those no longer in school.

Experience in Rwanda shows that curriculum redesign requires close co-operation with education and workforce development authorities, as well as government officials, teachers and school administrators. New teaching and learning materials also have to be developed.

Achieving the necessary scale also requires a markedly different approach to training teachers than is currently on offer in most African school systems. Training must go beyond traditional, one-off approaches by providing ongoing teacher support. New pedagogies also require continual supervision and practice, especially early on.

African governments, with support from the international community, can help students to transition from school to work by relying on a curriculum that elevates the importance of soft skills. These changes can ensure young people are positioned to drive Africa’s future prosperity.

Africans deserve a forward-looking education system, not one that remains stuck in the past. As students in South Africa demonstrated last year, the continent’s youth will settle for nothing less.

l Kerr is the deputy director of education and learning at the ­MasterCard Foundation


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