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Working Paper

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Caldwell has hypothesized that the onset of the fertility transition would be linked with the achievement of “mass formal schooling.” In sub-Saharan Africa, a region where some countries have begun the fertility transition but many have not, the extent of progress toward mass schooling has not yet been assessed. This paper fills a gap in the literature using newly available Demographic and Health Survey data to assess schooling patterns and trends for 17 sub-Saharan African countries. As background to that assessment, the paper includes a literature review, an overview of the recent history of African education, and an evaluation of alternative sources of data on education. These data are linked to recent markers of fertility change in order to assess the potential importance of mass schooling for the fertility transition in Africa. In most of Africa, the promise embodied in early post-independence education progress whereby the next generation of Africans would be universally exposed to basic levels of formal schooling has yet to be realized. Countries such as Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are the exceptions rather than the rule, and most of these had achieved some form of mass schooling by the early 1980s. Since 1980, growth rates in educational participation and attainment have slowed or halted; in some countries, they have begun to decline. Most of these same countries were in the forefront of the fertility transition in Africa; in Ghana and Tanzania, fertility declines have begun more recently. A systematic empirical analysis of cross-country patterns across all 17 countries supports Caldwell’s hypothesis. Within this group, however, we find a few countries beginning to show signs of fertility transition despite limited progress in mass schooling. Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal are notable examples of this new development. In countries where population growth rates remain high and a growing proportion of the population is of school age, the achievement of mass schooling will be increasingly difficult in the future if high fertility persists. Therefore, if fertility declines are to continue, or in some cases begin, they will have to do so in the absence of mass schooling. Instead, fertility may respond to other vehicles of communication, such as the mass media, which will be increasingly pervasive, providing alternative mechanisms for the spread of cultural change.