Getting it right: Curriculum reform in Eastern & Southern Africa

Blue banner with the words Think Education: Facing the learning crisis in eastern and Southern Africa

Despite attempts to reform basic education curriculum in sub-Saharan Africa, learning levels have remained stubbornly low. The general movement away from a traditional curriculum (broadly defined as ‘academic’ and teacher-centred with high subject content) towards an ‘outcome’-based curriculum (i.e., student-centred and focused on skills and capabilities) has done little, if anything, to improve learning outcomes.

We need to challenge the current approach to the primary curriculum reform process. Lessons from previous curriculum reform efforts in the global south, can be applied to future reforms. I propose two key messages for governments and development partners approaching curriculum reform:

New curricula are overly complex: a step too quick and too far?

A comprehensive, competency-based primary curriculum is ambitious for most of sub-Saharan Africa. For real change we need to focus on what can realistically be delivered and ensure that basic literacy and numeracy take precedence over other curriculum areas. This remains the single biggest challenge, given the high proportion of children without even minimal levels of literacy and numeracy. The temptation to over-load the curriculum detracts from this fundamental objective. The early grades need heavy focus to lay the foundation for future learning.

A child writes using chalk on a blackboard as a teacher looks on
© UNICEF/UNI170597/OseRefugee children from South Sudan learn at a makeshift school at Kule Camp in Gambella region of Ethiopia.

Deliver the whole package

In the process of curriculum reform, deep-seated structural faults  — large class sizes, low teacher competence and motivation, books that are too difficult for learners (and sometimes even teachers!) — are frequently ignored. Key elements of the delivery system are too often assumed to be working. This includes the way teachers are trained and supported, their appetite and motivation for change, issues such as leadership, the general school environment and physical conditions. It assumes that the supply chain for essential teaching and learning materials will deliver what is needed.

Curriculum reform all too frequently seems designed for a reality that does not exist

Successful implementation requires change across several areas, not just in the curriculum itself. It also requires changes to the way learning is assessed through tests and examinations. A new curriculum is inevitably different, probably more difficult, and certainly more demanding than what the system has been used to. Given that it fails to deliver the familiar, why do we expect it to deliver the unfamiliar? Curriculum reform all too frequently therefore seems designed for a reality that does not exist. We need to devote a far higher proportion of initial time and resources in considering the readiness of the system to be able to accommodate the required change.

The reform process itself is an iterative process as the new curriculum takes shape: there is a need to constantly test the feasibility of delivery, assess strengths and weaknesses and adapt the roll-out to fit available resources.

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Roger Cunningham has extensive experience of working in education policy and practice in around thirty countries. Formerly a senior adviser with DFID and the EU, he now works as an independent consultant.



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