Time to focus on youth and adult education

Many countries in southern Africa are facing the critical and growing challenge of how to provide an education that meets the socio-economic needs of their bulging youth populations. Primary school drop-out rates remain high across the region so many children and youth end up outside the education system. Unable to return to school or to access technical and vocational education, they end up without the necessary skills to prosper in a world that is increasingly dependent on knowledge.

Richard Lee's picture


Strategic communications for WWF

August 21st, 2012

Many countries in southern Africa are facing the critical and growing challenge of how to provide an education that meets the socio-economic needs of their bulging youth populations. Primary school drop-out rates remain high across the region so many children and youth end up outside the education system. Unable to return to school or to access technical and vocational education, they end up without the necessary skills to prosper in a world that is increasingly dependent on knowledge.

And there are very limited ‘second chances’ for these children and youth to learn in adulthood since the adult education sector also faces serious difficulties. Funding remains low, while gaps in policy formulation and implementation mean that the sector cannot adequately meet the current needs of the region’s adults – let alone the needs of the burgeoning population of out-of-school youth.

The right to education for every child, youth and adult is fundamental. Education counts more than ever in the contemporary world that is characterised by rapid change and technological advances. Education does not only benefit the individual but it also benefits their families, communities and the wider nation. And southern Africa can point to some real gains since the Education for All and Millennium Development Goals were adopted in 2000.

Great strides have been made towards universal primary education along with increased participation in secondary and tertiary education, reduced gender disparities, and some steps towards addressing the needs of marginalised groups, children with special needs and indigenous people. But despite these gains, a lot still needs to be done in the youth and adult education sectors if southern African countries are ever to meet the demands of all the uneducated and unskilled youth and adults in the region.

It is within this context that this research study on Youth and Adult Learning and Education in Southern Africa was commissioned by OSISA in collaboration with the Institut für Internationale Zusammernarbeit des Deutschen Volkshochschul-Verbandes (dvv international). The full report can be downloaded below and five individual country reports will be available on the site in the coming weeks.

The research was intended to create an up-to-date map of the current state of youth and adult education in five southern African countries – Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Swaziland – by looking at the policies, legislation and institutional frameworks governing the sector as well as the funding of, and stakeholders involved in, youth and adult education services. The study aimed to highlight critical gaps and provide recommendations to help address them.

The study shows that all five countries need clearer policies, better financing and improved governance to ensure that young people and adults are able to enjoy their right to education.

The findings also highlight the fact it is only recently that youth have been regarded as a distinct and important category of adult education learners, largely as a result of the increasing concern about the growing number of young people who are currently ‘not in education, employment, or training’ – hence the new acronym, NEETs.

However, despite this, adult education frameworks have not been adequately reviewed and restructured to accommodate the needs of the youth. In addition, adult education is usually defined very narrowly as basic literacy or post-literacy – or, even at its broadest, as education that is equivalent to primary and secondary schooling.

The situation is further complicated by the ambiguities regarding which components of youth and adult education (literacy, non-formal education, vocational education, life skills or continuing education) are covered by policy.

Another major challenge is the dearth of data or ‘data poverty’ as Professor John Aitchison, the author of this report, calls it – with very little effort being made at the policy level to aggregate the data to get a clearer view of the big picture. Coupled with very limited investment in research, documentation, monitoring and evaluation, this makes it a real challenge to finance youth and adult education.

While focussing on just five countries, the findings of this study highlight key issues that the entire region needs to address – and should provoke much-needed reflection and debate on youth and adult education by policy-makers and financiers at national and regional level.

The report also provides recommendations that call upon governments to put in place mechanisms that will ensure the provision of quality youth and adult education services in order to give everyone the chance of a brighter future – and to make southern African societies fairer and more equal for all.

Indeed, the report makes a host of recommendations, including:


  • Countries need to move to more internationally standardised terminology for adult education to end the narrow identification of ‘adult education’ with literacy and adult basic education and to stop referring to thoroughly formal adult basic education as ‘non-formal education’.
  • Greater use should be made of the definition of lifelong education and training that was coined by the SADC technical committee on lifelong education and training.

Policy, legislation and governance

  • Each country needs a comprehensive consolidated youth and adult education policy for the many people who have not benefited from the formal system of education and training. Although this policy may understandably prioritise literacy and basic education, it should comprehend the whole range of adult education. It should include attention to out-of-school youth and marginalised children and to language issues and support for the creation of literate environments.
  • In the short term, there should be more effective implementation of education policies that are already in place to support youth and adult education and a thorough review and revision of adult education and vocational education and training policies and governance frameworks so that they can be adjusted to the  current needs of the population. These framework reviews should examine the partnerships between government and all institutions and stakeholders involved in education and training to enable greater engagement by civil society in youth and adult education.
  • Appropriate mechanisms for the coordination of youth and adult education activities need to be established that involve all stakeholders. Appropriate interim measures should be put in place to help coordinate the efforts of youth and adult education sector stakeholders, including the resuscitation of dormant adult education councils.
  • While creating and reforming the governance and institutions of adult education, it should be seen as an autonomous sector and not an appendage to another (such as formal schooling). 
  • Existing units serving youth and adult education and vocational education and training in Ministries of Education need to be substantially upgraded and better resourced.
  • All actors involved in adult education must have access to legal, legislative and regulatory documents and guidelines to permit them to work more effectively and there should be an improved system for government communication with partners and stakeholders.

Awareness and recognition of youth and adult education

  • Agencies at all levels, including government ministries, that are involved in youth and adult education need to overtly identify themselves as being such providers and so assist in deepening the understanding of key players and the public about the importance of youth and adult education and reduce ignorance and even prejudice about adult education.
  • There should be a significant policy document for the adult education sector that reflects all stakeholders’ views and recognises the role that youth and adult education can play in economic and social development, poverty reduction, etc. This document should be revised on a regular basis in accordance with consultations and the results of monitoring and evaluation programmes.
  • There should be an annually updated communication plan for the promotion of the youth and adult education sector.

Literacy and language

  • Plans to overhaul the conceptualisation, curriculum and materials of national literacy programmes should be supported as it is increasingly recognised that some initial literacy instruction methods are better than others and that initial literacy is not enough on its own.
  • Given that the countries are signatory to several international and regional conventions relating to the elimination of illiteracy, it is imperative that the countries fulfil their obligations under these agreements. In the field of literacy, the Bamako Call to Action, agreed to by African countries in 2008, is a challenge that most countries have yet to meet. Although provision in all five countries illustrates that governments are committed to this sector, it is necessary to re-galvanise their adult literacy plans and provide the resources to implement them.
  • The language of literacy and adult basic education instruction needs to be re-examined. Although there are compelling reasons for the teaching of English or Portuguese as a key means of communication in the workplace and bureaucracy, there is overwhelming international evidence that the use of the mother-tongue as the main medium of instruction in primary and basic education is more effective.
  • A clear and equitable policy on the provision of learning materials in national languages is also needed, particularly for literacy and adult basic education.


  • Customised curricula must be developed that respond effectively to learners’ needs, particularly youth who have had no or very little formal education as well as for youth with some education but few vocational skills.
  • Old curriculum implementation guidelines need to be revised, and the implementers need to adapt the practices accordingly.
  • A unified national curriculum for literacy and adult basic education (including life skills and elements of technical and vocational education and training) must be developed with the participation of all stakeholders.

Data, information and research

  • There is a need for a standardisation of the data required from youth and adult education providers and all providers should be encouraged to develop their own capacity to supply this information. In particular, narrow or misleading definitions of adult or non-formal education should be avoided.
  • Digitised, internet accessible storage of reports, research, evaluations and other documentation is needed. There should be a strong commitment to share documentation and materials, including through a comprehensive, systematic regional web-based database on adult education provision and practice.
  • Governments should work hand-in-hand with universities and other research-based institutions to strengthen or revive research capacity in the field and research findings should inform policy and practice.

Quality assurance, monitoring and evaluation

  • Governments should support the development of quality assessment, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms in order to formulate and regulate policies, programmes and to evaluate the impact of youth and adult education.
  • A framework for learning validation in youth and adult education should be developed, which is equivalent to the system of formal education, regardless of where, when and how the learning occurred.
  • The operation of existing inspection systems for youth and adult education must be improved since this would help to make the adult education sub-system more effective and efficient.
  • There should be a general improvement in the evaluation methods and programmes linked to adult and youth education and better dissemination of the results.
  • Evaluations should be made of the different programmes and methods used in literacy and adult basic education to verify their advantages and disadvantages, and to propose alternatives.


  • Notwithstanding the current economic-financial difficulties in most of the countries, there is an urgent need to increase the percentage of the national budgets allocated to education and, in particular, to the adult education and training sector.
  • Funding benchmarks should be developed along with strategies for mobilising the additional resources (including from international donors) for youth and adult education.
  • There should be renewed attempts by all sectors to ensure sustainable funding of youth and adult education and the accountable and transparent utilisation of that funding.
  • Governments should consider the implementation, where it has not been implemented, of a skills development levy on the private sector to help finance training and entrepreneurship.


  • While it is recognised that the rebuilding and construction of the formal school infrastructure is a priority, attention must also be paid to refurbishing old infrastructure as well as building new infrastructure – both of which can be used for multiple purposes, including youth and adult education.

Qualifications frameworks

  • Effective instruments and systems of recognition, validation and accreditation of all forms of learning, monitoring and evaluation should be established – as recommended in the Belém Framework for Action (UNESCO, 2009b).
  • Appropriately designed national qualifications framework must be established to ensure access to and recognition of prior learning (formal and non-formal) of adults and the rational comparison of certification and qualifications provided by various providers. More accessible progression routes from one level of skill competence or knowledge acquisition to the next should be developed. However, care must be taken to avoid cumbersome and over-bureaucratised models.
  • The registration process for existing National Qualifications Frameworks may need to be simplified and special provision (including less onerous criteria) should be established for small organisations.

Practitioners and practitioner development

  • There must be a coherent capacity building plan with identified agents empowered to implement the plan.
  • The conditions of service, remuneration and general status of adult education personnel, particularly in literacy, adult basic and non-formal education need to be rapidly addressed and harmonised with those of conventional educators and trainers.
  • Action should be taken by both ministries of education and other organisations to develop initial and continuing teacher and educational manager training.
  • The use of Open and Distance learning and ICTs in the training and support of educators and materials developers should be encouraged.
  • Universities and research institutions should – by working alongside practitioners – provide conceptual and practical support to youth and adult education by conducting research and developing programmes, curricula, materials and educational approaches and methods that are more relevant and responsive to learners’ needs and are more effective and efficient in practice. Universities and research institutions should also provide support with monitoring and evaluation, and by encouraging students to do work experience attachments in the youth and adult education sector.

Out-of-school youth

  • The advantages of separate programmes for out-of-school youth should be explored.
  • NGOs should include youth (both out-of-school and employed) in their programmes.

Mobilisation, cooperation and networking

  • Both government and civil society should make a strong commitment to reform and revitalise youth and adult education, to strengthen its capacity and to develop an action agenda for effective follow up.
  • More networking and exchanges are required to give substance to cooperation in the field of youth and adult education. Civil society organisations, the donor community, and other actors should make youth and adult education an important part of their social agendas.
  • Civil society associations working in the field of youth and adult education should synchronise their awareness raising activities with those of national, provincial and municipal education departments, and with school management and community or neighbourhood members at the local level, to increase their impact and to ensure local contextualisation and adaptation.


  • 1 Hood Avenue/148 Jan Smuts; Rosebank, GP 2196; South Africa
  • T. +27 (0)11 587 5000
  • F. +27 (0)11 587 5099