Africa's record on school enrolment varies between and within countries. But educators' focus may now be shifting from enrolment to quality and new innovative forms of training.
When the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for education were revised downwards last year, the slow progress of African schools in particular stood out as a problem.
The mid-term progress report found that a quarter of African children weren't in school, that half the world's out-of-school children are in sub-Saharan Africa, and that the progress there had been was now slackening off.
Indeed, many African countries will not reach the goal set in 2000 of achieving Universal Primary Education (UPE) by 2015. Some are even going backwards: Nigeria, one of Africa's richest nations, has seen sharply rising numbers of children out of school, to the extent that one in five of the world's out-of-school children is now Nigerian. Failures like these are not just a personal tragedy for the 10 million African children who do not even start school.
They are also a potential global threat, according to Ade Mabogunje, a Stanford University Professor who advises his native Nigerian Government. "Nigeria will go from 150 million to 750 million citizens this century", he says. "If they aren't trained and working, it's a global security crisis. Look at how Boko Haram feeds off educational failure."
But these days Africa is also for optimists, and the school story also has some happy endings. A clutch of nations have already passed the goal or are within a touching distance of doing so: these include Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and Mauritius.
And a few others are virtually guaranteed to join them on schedule in 2015, such as Rwanda, Burundi, and Ethiopia. And for the dozen or so sub-Saharan nations who have high levels of universal primary completion, we can expect progress at all levels. Kenya, for example, is installing a connected IT suite for every secondary school thanks to a deal with Chinese IT companies.
The journeys of these countries have featured some remarkable discoveries - such as the finding that de-worming programmes and uniforms keep children at school more effectively than improved buildings - as well as some painful compromises - as governments try to squeeze more schooling from their budgets, class sizes often rise and quality falls.
Some countries such as Ethiopia have also shown that catching up from behind is possible. In what was hailed by the UN's Global Monitoring Report as a "spectacular success'", Ethiopia consistently raised the number of children enrolled in and completing primary education by around 5% each year. Solomon Shiferaw,
Head of Planning at Addis Ababa's Ministry of Education, emphasised that these achievements were the result of ambitious thinking and sheer will. "To educate every child we work with every person", he says. "It's about national awareness, parent committees, [and] community involvement as well as the schools themselves. Nearly a quarter of our national spending is on education. It's simply the biggest thing we do."
A two-speed continent
There is no cause for despair just yet then. In fact, often the main issue is the distribution of education within and between countries rather than the absolute failure of governments to provide schooling.
A two-speed continent is emerging, with dividing lines between rich and poor, as well as between the better and the worse governed nations. In a recent forecast, McKinsey Group estimates that by 2020, still only 48% of Africans will be taking education beyond primary, compared to 40% today.
The gap between Africa's winners and laggards looks even more worrying when you investigate the quality of learning in schools. A group of southern and eastern African countries collaborate to gather data on their standard achievement tests in primary numeracy and literacy.
The range between lowest and highest attainment of basic learning is significant; in Malawi less than 10% of children in school achieve the basic targets, whereas in Mauritius it's over 70%.
Test results also show that last decade's achievement of getting 50 million children into African classrooms has often been at the expense of quality. "Many kids are learning close to nothing and they leave school unable to read or do simple sums", says Charles Kenny at the Centre for Global Development.
UNESCO's 'Education for All' programme, now over a decade old, is therefore shifting its focus in 2013, from enrolling pupils to the quality of teaching.
But a million teachers would have to be trained and brought into service in sub-Saharan Africa between now and 2015 simply to keep up with MDG goals without lowering the quality of learning. Clearly this is not going to happen, but the bigger point is that the top challenge in the education reform agenda is no longer school enrolment but teacher training.
Classrooms without walls
Another increasingly important dimension of African education is learning that takes place outside schools. Clever social innovators are developing practical systems for second-chance and vocational training.
Idealists may not like the idea of a 'good enough' approach to learning - whereby people don't get schooling but can get information and training as and when required for work - but this appears to be becoming a norm with its own established formats.
For example, farmer field schools, an idea originally pioneered in Indonesia, are now a widely-used format for 'sending farmers to school' in season-long courses for groups of around 25 farmers at a time in a 'classroom without walls'.
A three-year study of farmer field school outcomes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda showed that learning from these initiatives raised family income by an average of over 60%; households whose head had no previous schooling sometimes more than doubled their income.
In Macha, a very remote village in central Zambia, an isolated community with a good VSAT satellite link largely teaches itself farming, IT, health and literacy, and retains its skilled professionals in the countryside rather than losing them to the cities.
Machaworks, as this experiment is known, trains people through relationships as much as classrooms. Machaworks' founder, the charismatic Dutchman Gertjan van Stam, argues that effective education happens in African societies when communities come together to learn collectively and throughout life.
Digital innovators using SMS and smartphone apps are also earning global attention with new tools for delivering this kind of just-in-time learning for adults. Piggybacking on the triumph of the Kenyan phone-based money-transfer service M-Pesa, start-ups in Kenya's Silicon Savannah are rushing out apps for phone-based-learning in finance, work skills, literacy and numeracy.
This may be scalable and sustainable, says Derrydean Dadzie, CEO of DreamOval, a Ghanaian IT company. His business makes the software behind a range of mainly commercial phone services, but has diversified to education with apps that train adult learners in Ghana on themes ranging from breast-feeding your baby to boosting your cocoa crop. Half of Ghana lives in rural areas, and just about all of Ghana owns a mobile phone; for Dadzie, that adds up to a business.
"By 2015, half of this country will be using their mobiles to make e-cash payments", he says. "Now in Ghana people really want to learn - there's a huge appetite for education here. The farmers who get SMS lessons about their crops all double their income. So I am absolutely sure that people will pay for learning on the phone. We are going to see a boom in phone services reaching out to train people in all sorts of skills."
Looking forwards to the 2015 expiry date of the MDGs, Africa's report card from schoolrooms looks like that of an erratic pupil, with grades ranging all the way from A+ to Fail.
Africa's class of 2015 isn't even close to attaining the prize of the large, consistently literate and numerate community. But on the other hand, there is a strong and clear determination to push forwards and try out bold things. Africa watchers should sit up and pay attention.
This is a shorter version of an article that will appear in the April/May edition of IBA Global Insight magazine. The magazine can be viewed at www.ibanet.org
Stephen Haggard is a consultant on education technology and development, and CEO of the eLearning company eDysgu. He has led eLearning projects for governments, schools and companies, and has previously been Executive Producer of the BBC/Open University eLearning partnership and Editor of BBC's Newsnight.