According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Africa had the highest proportion of repeaters in primary schools of any region in 2014 (7.87%). These statistics highlight persistent concerns education standards across Africa and there is an acknowledgment that inadequate teacher training and development is a major underlying cause of these deficiencies.

A study published by the University of Sussex found that initial teacher training programmes (ITTs) in a number of sub-Saharan African countries failed to adequately prepare trainees. The study covered English and Maths and found that there was a large gap between what trainees were taught on ITTs and the curricula in primary schools. This gap was further widened by the lack of opportunity for further development once the trainee teachers had qualified, as primary schools assumed that they received adequate training on the ITTs.

ITTs would also focus on content more than developing trainees' teaching techniques or giving them practical experience of teaching in classrooms. The lack of classroom exposure makes it hard for newly-qualified teachers to address the needs of large classes or those students who struggle with conventional teaching methods. This is particularly pertinent in sub-Saharan Africa because the student-to-teacher ratio in primary schools is, on average, 42:1 according to the World Bank. ITTs themselves have high trainee-to-tutor ratios, making their individual development difficult and this is clearly a major contributor to poor education standards. For example, in Nigeria attendances at ITT lectures can reach thousands of students.

These issues are exacerbated by insufficient continuing professional development (CPD) training. CPD training programmes can be helpful but they are rare and are not subject-specific. They therefore fail to develop the skills required to teach subjects such as English and Maths effectively. For example, a 2007 study in South Africa found that 79% of maths teachers of 11 and 12 year-olds who sat tests similar to those taken by their class actually scored less than what was expected of their students.

It is also clear that the deficiencies are more pronounced in state schools, where poor education standards are exacerbated by teacher absenteeism. For instance, a study by the World Bank found that in some countries there was a 15-25% absence rate among teachers in primary state schools.

However, a number of governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private institutions have sought to improve teacher training. Spark Schools, which are low-cost private schools in South Africa, provide their teachers with 250 hours of CPD a year, which is the same amount of CPD state school teachers would receive in a decade.

Kenya has recently focused on extensive curriculum reform as part of 'Kenya Vision 2030' and this includes enhancing ITTs and the provision of CPD. In a national curriculum policy published in 2015, the Kenyan Ministry of Education, Science and Technology focuses on a number of areas to improve the quality of teacher training, including:

  • reforming teacher training at all levels;
  • improving access to information technology for trainee teachers; and
  • monitoring ITTs in order to align their content with that of the reformed curriculum.
  • It is too early to assess the implementation of this policy and its benefits but Kenya is clearly making progress.

UNESCO and the Chinese government also jointly launched a project in 2012 to incorporate information technology in Africa into teacher training more. It is a two-phase project and China will contribute US$12 million over the course of it. Phase 1, which ended in 2016, was aimed at eight countries (Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Namibia, Congo, DR Congo, Liberia, Tanzania and Uganda) and phase 2 will include Togo and Zambia. Phase 1 involved over 100 training workshops and the training of approximately10,000 teachers, while 230 ITT modules and policy documents were revised or developed (and these have been institutionalised). Further, three digital libraries were established and these link over 30 teacher training institutions. Phase 1 has therefore helped to develop teacher training in these countries and simultaneously promote greater conformity between ITTs and curricula and it will be interesting to see how phase 2 develops on this.

It is therefore recognised that more needs to be done to improve education standards in sub-Saharan Africa. Recognition of the need for improved education standards has manifested itself in the form of governmental policy shifts, NGO-backed initiatives and a greater focus on CPD by private schools. By maintaining this focus on teacher training, long- and short-term education standards in sub-Saharan Africa will improve dramatically and underpin increased productivity and substantial economic growth in the region.