Three Issues for Sub-Saharan Africa’s Educational Development: My Reflections on RISE Tanzania Regional Research Validation and Dissemination Workshops

Achieving quality across the education system as a whole, allowing frontline providers to focus on core education tasks, and drawing on local wisdom can help address the learning crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Image of Julius Atuhurra

Julius Atuhurra

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

This past July, I spent two weeks in Tanzania participating in RISE’s research dissemination and validation sessions across three regions – Songwe, Tanga and Kigoma. Away from my daily routine in Oxford, I got an opportunity to reflect on a few issues relevant to Sub-Saharan Africa’s educational development path that I feel need more critical research attention.  

With the majority of children enrolling ill-prepared for learning and persevering through schools that are overly constrained to deliver on the promise of quality education for all, the learning crisis is ‘alive and well’ in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). As RISE’s research has shown over the last eight years, education systems in many developing countries (including of SSA) are aligned for different purposes, except learning – and this misalignment with learning requires urgent attention.  

Basic education reforms in Tanzania

Basic education in Tanzania came under critical focus in 2012 when only 31 percent of the candidates who sat the primary school leaving exam (PSLE) passed it. Around the same time, the Uwezo citizen-led assessment movement was gathering steam in the broader East African region and relayed a clear public message that ‘children were in school but not learning’.  

To their credit, the Tanzanian government in 2013 undertook to improve the quality of basic education countrywide under the Big Results Now (BRN) education reforms. As one of the reform initiatives, the School Quality Assurance (SQA) program was rolled out in 2017 and entailed shifting from the hitherto ineffectual school inspection visits to a new “diagnose and support” model in form of Whole School Visits (WSVs) conducted by School Quality Assurance Officers (SQAOs). WSVs required SQAOs to engage with the broader school community, identify major factors impeding learning, and recommend context-relevant strategies mostly targeted at achieving quality teaching and management at the school.  

The RISE Tanzania team evaluated the effects of this policy shift through a randomised controlled trial – some schools being randomly assigned to receive WSVs earlier than others. Among those that received early visits, some were further randomly assigned to a phone-based SMS sent to a local education official (the ward education officer, WEO) responsible for providing support supervision to 4-5 primary schools in the local area called a ‘ward’. This SMS acted as a reminder to the WEO to follow-up on key school-level issues raised in the WSV report for that school.  

Throughout July 2022, findings’ validation and dissemination workshops were held in the six regions covered by the study, and I participated in three. Co-ordinated by the regional education officer, the workshops brought together education officials at district and ward level – specifically District Education Officers (DEOs), SQAOs, and WEOs. These workshops surfaced three educational development issues for SSA that I feel strongly about and merit further researcher attention. 

Issue #1: Achieving quality along with quantity

‘Children are in school but not learning’ is the simple definition of the ‘learning crisis’ currently affecting many L&MICs. The challenge with this way of thinking about the crisis is that those with power to take decisions to reverse this status might interpret the learning crisis as a quality-quantity tradeoff. But it does not have to be that way! Consistent with SDG#4, quality education can be achieved for all children.  

Going beyond the school and classroom setting, education systems need to wholly shift towards a ‘quality along with quantity’ paradigm. For example, education curriculum design is heavily laced with quality and quantity considerations that are of extreme importance for children’s learning. Fast-paced curricula ensure large amounts of content are covered within a specified time limit. If content coverage is the principal focus, the curriculum policy is quantity-centric and likely to leave many children behind. To achieve quality along with quantity requires curriculum crafters to balance content progression pace with the likelihood of achieving conceptual and procedural mastery for most children – which ensures faster real progression on subsequent content for all children.  

A separate but equally critical component of an education ecosystem is research and research-related events. During the past seven years, RISE has held very successful education research annual conferences. But what does ‘very successful’ really mean? This year I took part in some activities leading up to the recently concluded RISE 2022 Annual Conference. In my view, two ingredients were critical for success: high-quality research paper submissions and ensuring there were enough of those for a two-day event. Both conditions were critical to avoid a quality-quantity compromise.  

Very successful events such as academic research conferences are not all about the quantity and quality of papers presented but also the participants. Event participation is another prime area where a shift to a ‘quality along with quantity’ perspective is needed as part of system-wide efforts to reverse the learning crisis in SSA. Addressing ourselves to questions like who has attended a meeting or which invitees came to the event reveals the inherent quality dimensions of that meeting or event. An invitee who is unable to attend but sends a representative has addressed the quantity but (likely) not quality concerns of the event host.  

At the research dissemination workshops in Tanzania, attendance of WEOs presented a quality-quantity tradeoff situation. WEOs comprised the largest proportion of invitees at each regional session, and thus were the more likely to experience physical attendance challenges. In most cases, those that failed to physically attend sent headteachers as their representatives – addressing our quantity expectations but not quality needs for successful validation of a study in which WEOs were key actors. Head teachers had not been directly targeted in the SQA RCT study, did not have the experience of overseeing more than one school where WSVs had been conducted and thus could not adequately fill-in for WEOs at these meetings.  

Without embedding the ‘quality along with quantity’ viewpoint throughout the education system, it will be difficult to achieve quality education for all children.  

Issue #2: Core work and additional responsibilities for frontline providers

In many developing countries, frontline service providers must contend with heavy workloads, usually in under-resourced environments – such as teaching overcrowded mixed ability classes coupled with lack of important instructional support materials. Due to their strategic location at the base of program implementation, frontline providers also often find themselves being targeted for delivering new programs or initiatives. This introduces additional work responsibilities that may worsen their extent of work overload.  

Teachers in SSA are often asked to shoulder additional responsibilities at school such as leading some extracurricular activities and performing school administration tasks (similar experiences have also been reported by teachers in other countries).Owing to their social position as enlightened professionals in their communities, teachers might be called upon to manage elections, lead activities at social gatherings, or even take up local-level political leadership positions.  

Like teachers, WEOs enjoy strategic positioning as frontline school monitors and are thus often called upon to play additional roles that might significantly increase their workload and affect their ability to deliver on their core roles. In an earlier study, WEOs stated that they reported to multiple authorities and thus experienced competing demands on their time -  a key factor that might affect their performance as school monitors.  

The tragedy with additional roles for frontline players is that these may end up gaining more importance and thus become heavily prioritised, defeating effective performance of the core education tasks. Reducing the workload, limiting additional noncore tasks, and providing the required ongoing support to frontline providers will likely improve performance on their core tasks and contribute to reversing the learning crisis. 

Issue #3: Taking full advantage of existing local solutions

Positive Deviance is premised on the observation that communities are endowed with local solutions to the intractable social problems they face. A search for local organizations or individuals that have successfully overcome a prevailing community problem always reveals the existence of the Positive Deviants (PDs).  

For example, top performing public schools exist in districts that are consistently ranked as poor performers. Within a poorly performing school, you always find a teacher or two whose students consistently achieve top grades on national exams. These PDs have previously figured out context-relevant solutions that the community could adapt to overcome the problem. 

During the workshops, I spent some time engaging the DEOs who directly supervise the WEOs. All DEOs could easily identify WEOs in their district that they considered to be consistent top performers. These WEOs swiftly followed up on issues in their schools and gave prompt feedback on actions taken to the DEOs. The DEOs however, could not mention the unique strategies or practices these WEOs applied in the daily conduct of their job that might explain their top performances relative to other WEOs – a research gap that can be filled by conducting an ethnographic inquiry into WEOs’ daily work practices.  

My engagements with DEOs also sought to explore other sustainable ways in which WEOs can be continuously reminded to follow-up on important issues in schools – to replicate the phone-based SMS reminders used by the RISE Tanzania team. The DEOs revealed that they can make use of formally constituted and already existing group WhatsApp communication platforms for WEOs. While this might not perfectly replicate the SMS message, it is a starting place from where DEOs could make necessary micro adaptations.  

Positive Deviants exist in most contexts, their solutions are locally relevant and usually accessible – sometimes with micro adaptations. In contexts where these solutions are not yet discovered, it is important to embark on a process to unearth them. A bigger challenge however relates to how the PD solutions get to be widely adopted by other community members to move the larger group to higher achievement. Understanding how local wisdom spreads is an important research gap that needs filling in the efforts to reverse the learning crisis.   

In summary, Tanzanian parents have previously shown strong value attachment to both school proximity and quality learning for their children. In many regions however, parents’ willingness to have their children walk long distances for better learning opportunities has not generated the expected response from the regional education bureaucrats. Education officials at regional, district and ward levels can begin to bridge this expectation gap by prioritising action on the three issues discussed above in efforts to reverse the learning crisis in Tanzania.    

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