London School of Economics and Centre for the Studies of the Economies of Africa (CSEA)
Before the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic stalled learning for students in Nigeria, the nation’s education system was facing an epidemic of its own: a deeply inadequate and inequitable education system that taught far too little to only a few students. At the peak of the pandemic, almost 40 million students were affected by the nationwide school closures, but even prior to this, Nigeria suffered from the highest proportion of out-of-school children worldwide. And, for those that were enrolled, there is overwhelming evidence that learning levels were much lower than expected. With the current second wave of the virus, school holidays have been prolonged, suggesting a continued stall in learning for children.
In this brief, we highlight a simple and smart approach to recover the expected learning loss and revamp Nigeria’s education system, conveniently summarized in the acronym FACTS: Foundational learning, Assessment, Curriculum alignment, Technology and Special needs.
According to a 2015 National Education Data Survey (NEDS) which assessed literacy and numeracy levels, 46 percent of children enrolled in primary school could not identify words, read a single short sentence, or demonstrate basic comprehension in English or any of Nigeria’s three main native languages. In terms of numeracy, 35 percent were unable to add two single-digit numbers which summed to less than 10. In addition, there are huge variations along key demographic characteristics. According to the NEDS study, approximately 14 percent of the lowest wealth quintile showed minimum learning competencies in literacy and numeracy, compared to 82 percent and 84 percent of the highest quintile in literacy and numeracy respectively. Students in private primary schools achieved 74 percent and 84 percent literacy and numeracy competencies, while students in public schools achieved 44 percent and 56 percent, respectively.
Though schools have been allowed to reopen since September 2020, it is difficult to decipher the accrued learning loss induced by the school closures in Nigeria because there is no evidence that any assessments have been done either nationally or at state levels to determine how far behind students are. However, what we do know is that merely returning to schools and maintaining the pre-COVID status quo will not recoup the learning losses or avoid the associated lifetime and economic losses induced by the school closures. According to a recent simulation exercise by Belafi and Kaffenberger, without any forms of remediation, a 6-month school closure, as was the case with Nigeria, will result in an average loss of 1.4 years worth of learning for the current cohort of primary school students. With some remediation, this learning loss only reduces slightly to 1 year. On the other hand, they also show that an intervention focused on long-term reorientation of the education system will lead to a learning gain of about 7 months, generating not only learning recovery but further gain.
This is further entrenched by the fact that schools across the country moved students on to the next school year upon resumption, despite students missing a full term and a half of the previous year. As evidence shows, students had different levels of access to remote learning during the school closures, signifying that students will be returning to school with differing levels of skills and knowledge.
The state of Nigeria’s pre-pandemic education, compounded by the impacts of the pandemic, calls for more than a resumption of normality. While a variety of approaches could be implemented to achieve this, it is crucial to draw on available evidence that aligns to the facts of Nigeria’s education system in designing such long-term reorientation plans. Below, we draw on the available evidence to highlight five crucial approaches required for an innovative learning system that is suited to achieving the dual goal of recovering and revamping the nation’s education system.
Foundational learning focuses on reading and comprehension (in the language of the learner’s immediate environment) and arithmetic, crucial to enabling students to learn in subsequent grades and preparing them for careers after school. Typical school schedules and curricula in Nigeria consist of foundational learning plus other school subjects. However, given the time and learning lost to COVID-19, at least the next two school calendars should place greater focus on foundational learning. Weakness in foundational learning is at the crux of Nigeria’s poor performance in education, as it serves as the gateway to knowledge acquisition in other subject areas. It is therefore essential that it be made the cornerstone of any strategy to address Nigerian education’s inadequacies in the immediate and longer term.
As schools reopen, there is a need to know how far behind students are and how fast they are recovering in all subjects. Assessments put the focus directly on learning, as it provides evidence of the skills and knowledge students have, which allows decision makers to make better evaluative judgments on how to support learning recovery and make advancement toward learning goals. A combination of frequent, low-stakes, formative assessments at the school level, and nationwide school surveys are crucial to provide feedback that inform swift, targeted, and locally-relevant responses must be prioritized. Conversely, high-stakes examinations at the end of the school term should be postponed until recovery from learning loss to prevent unjust penalties for vulnerable groups that have been disproportionately impacted.
School systems in Nigeria are mostly organized by grades, with teaching targeted at grade or age levels. However, the key to learning recovery in Nigeria is the alignment of teaching and instructional support to where students are in their learning trajectory. Teaching at the skill-level of different learners has been shown to yield substantial learning gains, and a benefit of frequent school level assessments is that it provides the evidence that allows schools to adapt curricula to this proven approach in order to best help students recover learning losses.
Advances in technology have sparked a paradigm shift in education by breaking down geographical barriers, expanding the quantity, and improving the quality of learning. However, while school closures induced by the pandemic have resulted in a surge in the development and uptake of educational technology around the world, geographic barriers have given way to digital barriers, with most schools and families unable to leverage technology for learning. Given Nigeria’s socio-economic disparities and poor infrastructure, educational technology will not work in isolation. With the onset of this second wave of the virus, it is imperative that policymakers begin to consider alternative learning options by working with research and development partners to pilot and rigorously test the effectiveness of blended learning approaches tailored to different regional contexts and aligned with different profiles of deprived learners and under-resourced learning environments. Innovative approaches to incorporate learning technologies that are cognizant of infrastructural disparities will be crucial to ensure a variety of learners can take advantage of mixed in-person and remote opportunities suited to their needs.
Given inequalities in learning levels for students that experience various dimensions of poverty and exclusion, it is important to prioritize the learning needs of the most vulnerable and at-risk children as they are likely to require the most investment to recover from learning losses in the previous academic year, as well as additional non-academic support, including material and psycho-social, to ensure they are equipped to learn. Prioritizing the needs of vulnerable students is critical for Nigeria’s education system to make an inclusive and equitable recovery and build the foundation for future progress. A key way to achieve this is to work in tandem with organisations that are working locally to confront the nation’s most intractable local challenges. For example, Slum2School, an organisation that provides children in slums and remote communities in Lagos, Nigeria, to education. Last year, in the peak of the pandemic, the organization launched a digital platform that provides self-paced and collaborative learning modules delivered through interactive live sessions.
To address the poor learning levels pre-pandemic, and the learning losses induced by the pandemic, it is imperative to incorporate innovative measures to support and accelerate learning across schools in Nigeria. The role of education as a precursor to other Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) can not be denied, and unless the education system is strategically strengthened, progress on other goals/indicators will stagnate. The FACTS approach offers a basis upon which a results-driven, learning-oriented, inclusive and equitable strategy can be built.
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