UN-African Union Study Finds Investment in Teachers, School Leaders Crucial to Keep Girls in School — Global Issues
Girls at Dabaso Girls’ School in Malindi, Kenya, pose with a ball during recess. Universal secondary education could virtually eliminate child marriage and reduce early births by up to three-quarters, according to a report by the African Union and UNESCO. Photo by Maina Waruru/IPS
  • Maina Waruru (Nairobi & Addis Ababa)
  • Inter Press Service

Having more female teachers in schools and female teachers leading schools is even more important to provide role models that motivate girls to stay in school and continue learning after primary school.

While low educational attainment and child marriage among girls have serious negative impacts on girls, their families, communities and society, in addition to traditional factors, including social and cultural factors, investment in teachers and school leaders is also important to address learning deficits, which are identified as the leading cause of girls dropping out of school.

For example, in many African countries, less than a fifth of teachers at the secondary level are women, and the percentage of female school principals is even lower, yet the presence of female teachers has been shown to improve student learning and the retention of girls after primary and secondary school graduation.

As a result, women tend to stay in teaching longer, so to achieve further gains in girls’ education, better opportunities need to be given to female teachers and school leaders, the UN/African Union report said.

These deficits lead to high dropout rates, low educational attainment, widespread child marriage and increased risk of early birth for girls across Africa, it said. report, Girls’ education and ending child marriage in Africa: The investment case and the role of teachers and school leaders.

“Increasing investment in girls’ education is not only the right thing to do, it will deliver significant economic benefits. This requires interventions for adolescent girls, but it must start with strengthening basic learning through better teaching and school leadership,” a paper presented at the conference said. 1st Pan-African Conference on Girls’ and Women’s Education It will be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from July 2nd to 5th.

The report notes that lack of basic learning is the main reason why students drop out of primary and secondary schools, and that while teachers and principals are key to preventing dropout, new approaches to pedagogy and training for teachers and principals are also needed.

“Interventions targeted at adolescent girls are needed, but they often reach only the small proportion of girls who are in school at that age. In contrast, improving basic learning could benefit many more girls (and boys) and make sense from a cost-effectiveness perspective,” the report adds.

Moreover, parents across 10 French-speaking countries who responded to the household survey blamed a lack of learning in school – that is, children attending classes but not receiving instruction – for their children dropping out, with more than 40 percent of boys and girls dropping out of primary school.

Poor learning, blamed on teacher absence, is responsible for more than a third of students dropping out at the secondary level, so improving learning could automatically lead to significant gains in educational attainment for both boys and girls.

“To improve learning, impact evaluation reviews and analysis of student assessment data suggest that teachers and school leaders are key. But new approaches to professional development are needed, including structured pedagogy and training with a focus on practice. Teacher education also needs to improve: according to a household survey across 10 French-speaking countries, only a third of primary school teachers have a tertiary qualification,” laments the study, conducted in 2023.

The report called for “better opportunities” for female teachers and principals, noting that this would bring additional benefits as women tend to stay in the teaching profession longer than men.

Better professional standards and competency frameworks are also needed to make the teaching profession more attractive and gender-sensitive, the report said, highlighting that countries are still “not treating teaching as a profession” and lack a clear definition of the competencies needed at different levels of the profession.

Just over two-thirds of girls in sub-Saharan Africa complete primary school and four in 10 complete secondary school, according to a study written by Quentin Woden, Chata Mare and Adenike Onagoruwa of the African Union. International Center for the Education of African Girls and Women (AU/CIEFFA) and the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation, UNESCO.

Citing the latest data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, it found that while globally, nine in ten girls complete primary education and more than three in four complete lower secondary education, the figures are much lower in sub-Saharan Africa, with only 69 percent of girls and 73 percent of boys completing primary education and only four in ten girls (43 percent and 46 percent of boys) completing lower secondary education.

Providing girls and women with adequate educational opportunities can have a significant positive impact on many development outcomes, including increasing family incomes and living standards, eliminating child marriage and early childbirth, reducing fertility rates, health, nutrition and well-being.

The report notes that the gains in earnings are particularly substantial for those with secondary education, and while women with primary education earn more than women with no education, “women with secondary education earn more than twice as much, but the gains for those with tertiary education are even larger.”

Every additional year of secondary education a girl receives can reduce her risk of child marriage and having a child before age 18.

“Universal secondary education can virtually eliminate child marriage and reduce early birth by up to three-quarters. In contrast, primary education does not lead to significant reductions in child marriage or early birth in most countries,” the report declares.

These organizations strongly advocate for secondary education for girls, explaining that universal secondary education also has health benefits, such as increasing women’s knowledge of HIV/AIDS by one-tenth, increasing women’s power to make decisions about their own health care by one-quarter, reducing under-five mortality by one-third, and potentially reducing stunting among under-five children by up to 20 percent.

Moreover, eliminating child marriage and providing secondary education could reduce fertility rates (the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime) by one-third on average across countries, slowing population growth and allowing countries to enjoy a “demographic dividend.”

Other benefits include a reduction in “intimate partner” violence, a fifth more decision-making power among women within the household, and a more than 25 percent increase in the likelihood of registering children at birth.

To remedy the crisis, one way to get more women to lead schools is to make the teaching profession more attractive, Woden, director of UNESCO’s International Institute for Capacity Development in Africa (IICBA), said while presenting the report at the conference.

“Virtually all teachers are dissatisfied with their jobs and need to improve their job satisfaction, not just their salaries,” he noted.

While in some countries keeping girls in school has reduced birth rates by up to a third, the purpose of this study advocating for better education for girls had nothing to do with the need to reduce birth rates, but rather to empower girls and women in decision-making.

Lorato Modongo, an official from AU-CIEFFA, noted that empowering girls through education improves their position in society in terms of the power dynamics between girls and men.

“It is true that we cannot educate girls without challenging the power structures in patriarchal environments where men make all the decisions,” she pointed out.

Overall, the report regrets that gender imbalances in areas other than education, including career choices, stem from deep-rooted prejudices and discrimination against women that permeate education. It is therefore essential to reduce inequalities within and through education, recognising the important role that education plays in reducing wider gender inequalities in society.

“Educating girls and ending child marriage is not only the right thing to do, but also a smart economic investment.”

IPS United Nations Secretariat Report

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