September 8th, 2011, was the UN’s International Literacy Day.It was a day to reflect on the importance of a basic human right – the ability to read and write. Left uneducated, people cannot think critically for themselves or take a full and active role in modern society.
What is more, when too many people are unable to master even the basics, a country falls behind and economies stagnate.
Yet in 2011, International Literacy Day happened amidst a global learning crisis, at the heart of which is the failure of too many schools in so many countries to teach pupils to read and write.
Just one day will not solve this crisis, but it should act as a spur to action.
If we think about our own lives, we all know just how important basic literacy is. Increasingly, in countries like Rwanda, if you cannot read and write well then life is just that much harder.
Whether it is for a small household enterprise or the villagers who need to understand information about a new health centre opening in their area, reading has increasingly become the ticket to get on and get by in the modern world.
Countries which are more literate are more likely to have fewer families struggling in poverty, lower numbers of children dying young and are more likely to see living standards improve through decent economic growth.
There are even clear links between literacy and keeping a lid on population growth and a country being able to achieve and sustain a healthy democratic and civic culture.
Helping illiterate adults learn is important, but fundamentally, it all starts with children, in the home and in schools.
The academics and researchers could not be clearer – catch children early or it may all be too late. Why is this? First, we know that children who are reading in the first few years of school are far less likely to drop out and stop learning.
Secondly, there is a straight line between reading early and how well kids perform in other subjects, like science, history or geography, later.
Third, being able to read something, understand it and then discuss it is the bedrock on which critical thinking is based - a skill at the heart of being able to go on learning throughout your life.
Yet, today we are living amidst a learning crisis in large parts of the world. Across Africa, the concern is mounting. Local organisations are emerging that make inquiries on whether young kids are actually learning when they go to school.
Uwezo, an organisation dedicated to improve quality in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, recently found that learning outcomes are “… poor, very poor in-fact” with the majority of children in their third year unable to read or write as expected.
One recent study found that by the end of the second year of primary school in many countries, including Uganda, more than 80 percent of kids could not read a single word.
As in other countries, Rwanda has achieved an enormous amount in opening up education for all. Nine Years Basic Education has seen almost all young Rwandans going to school, with around three quarters now finishing primary school. Policy makers are turning their attention to the issue of quality.
First, the recent move to using Kinyarwanda as the language of tuition for the first three years of primary school was definitely the right move.
Research on how languages are learned maintains that children learn better if they have mastered their mother tongue first.
Second, the purchasing of text books has been reformed; something which hopefully will mean more and better books in every classroom.
Thirdly, the government is starting to test and assess how well pupils are reading after three years in a Rwandan school –a kind of health check for the education system to be sure it is delivering.
However, we underestimate the scale of the challenge at our peril. There is common agreement that many Rwandans do not have a reading culture.
This needs a lot of attention in particular, and, just as in many other African countries, teacher pay and motivation remain a worry and clear public information on how much children are learning remains relatively scarce.
So there can be no let up: the focus on education, and particularly educational quality, must be even sharper in the coming years.
One UN sponsored day to remind ourselves of just how fundamental reading and writing are for every individual, but also society as a whole, is all well and good. However, it will not mean much unless it acts as a catalyst for countries to recognise the scale of the learning crisis that they face.
International Literacy Day should not be the end, but the beginning of a continent wide struggle to tackle the learning crisis.
This could be a movement that Rwanda is well placed to lead, with a national mission to genuinely ensure literacy and learning for all.