What Have We Learned from Ethiopia’s National Quality Education Reform Programme: Lessons for the Ministry of Education

This blog summarises three main takeaways from RISE Ethiopia’s research over the last six years with lessons for the continuation of the Ethiopian Ministry of Education’s quality education reform process going forward.


Image of Mesele Araya

Mesele Araya

RISE Ethiopia

Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge

Image of Tassew Woldehanna

Tassew Woldehanna

RISE Ethiopia

Addis Ababa University

Image of Pauline Rose

Pauline Rose

RISE Ethiopia

Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge

Image of Ricardo Sabates

Ricardo Sabates

RISE Ethiopia

Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge

Over the past six years, a team led by a collaboration between the Institute of Educational Research at Addis Ababa University and the Policy Studies Institute (PSI), Ethiopia, together with the REAL Centre at the University of Cambridge has been researching how a large package of national education reforms in Ethiopia has been working to improve learning.

This blog outlines key messages from a workshop held in Addis Ababa in December 2022 to celebrate the end of this Research for Improving Systems of Education (RISE) project. The workshop was attended by the State Minister of General Education, Director General of the Education and Training Authority, Deputy Director General & Social Policy Study Sector Head of the Policy Studies Institute, representatives of FCDO, World Bank and Regional Bureaus of Education from across the country.

An overview of RISE Ethiopia

RISE Ethiopia aimed to understand how a complex package of reforms, including the General Education Quality Improvement Programme for Equity (GEQIP-E) programme, supported equitable learning in Ethiopia. We adopted a longitudinal research design using a mixed methods approach, combining systems diagnostics, political economy stakeholder analysis, and school-based quantitative and qualitative data collection. The multiple methods ensured that information from one strand could inform the other, and triangulation of data from multiple methods helped to provide a rich picture of the education system from the federal to the local level. Inevitable changes to the research had to be made as a result of COVID-19 and conflict in parts of the country, which affected the implementation of GEQIP-E. Our research design enabled us to adapt flexibly to the evolving context.

The RISE Ethiopia team includes education specialists, researchers skilled in both quantitative and qualitative methods, and team members with connections to policymakers. The Ministry of Education has a relationship of trust with the research team members – many of whom are based at the Institute of Educational Research of Addis Ababa University and at the Policy Studies Institute, a policy think tank established by the Ethiopian Government. As a result, our research outcomes have been shared with and well used by policymakers and other stakeholders. The team also played a major role in the preparation of Ethiopia’s Education Development Roadmap (2018-2030). The survey data and research findings were among the major sources of input for the document.

The RISE Ethiopia team has produced a significant body of academic and policy-oriented work, which has advanced the literature and the field of education considerably. A key strength has been the interdisciplinary approach and partnership between Ethiopian and international team members. The team has published outputs in the form of 42 peer reviewed journal articles, book chapters, working papers and insight notes, with more in progress. We have also published 20 blogs and several press releases. We are proud to see that our work has been featured in Ethiopian media and has been influential in informing global policy debates.

This blog summarises three main takeaways from RISE Ethiopia’s research over the last six years with lessons for the continuation of the Ethiopian Ministry of Education’s quality education reform process in going forward:

1. To improve learning, large-scale quality education reform needs to be sustained commitment over time, needs engagement of local actors, and a focus on equity

The first phase of the GEQIP reform was introduced in 2008 with a package of interventions aimed to increase inputs (such as textbooks) into education. In 2013, the second phase of the GEQIP reform was introduced with the aim of enhancing the quality of education and boosting learning outcomes through a stronger focus on processes, including teacher education. In 2019, the Government introduced the third phase of the reform, GEQIP-E, with a more concentrated focus on learning outcomes, with particular attention to equity – notably with respect to girls, children with disabilities, and pastoralists.

Our stakeholder analysis highlighted the importance of the trajectory from the first phase of GEQIP to the current phase. Notably, the necessary initial focus on inputs enabled the Government and donors to come together around a common purpose. With trust built between the stakeholders, they recognised that attention to equity issues needed to be strengthened. As such, the programme has evolved to have a more complex focus on equity and outcomes. This shift is very much welcome. Our research has highlighted the need for inclusion to go further, notably to be addressed with interventions more holistically (beyond schooling) if inequalities in education are to be overcome.  

We also found that the design process of the reforms lacked regional and grassroots-level consultation, particularly with Regional Education Bureaus and Woreda Education Offices. This would be likely to hinder implementation of the reforms, and it raises challenges for vertical accountability and potential incoherence. We further found that the Programme for Results modalities were poorly designed and not realistic for some regions given capacity constraints – creating incoherence with equity intentions. This suggests the need for technical assistance and special support for those regions facing particular challenges.

Furthermore, there is a lack of coherence between the availability and quality of data in the Education Management Information System (EMIS) and the expectations of the data needed to monitor results for the reform. This is due to a lack of budget and training. One consequence is the lack of EMIS data on learning, which means that GEQIP-E reform outcomes cannot be easily tracked. Similarly, lack of data disaggregated by disability means that this aspect of the reform can also not be monitored.

Overall, our findings have pointed to the importance of the continuity of the quality education reforms, with a focus on those who require additional support. In addition, our findings indicate that educational reform is determined both by political and technical factors, and this needs greater attention in reform design and implementation. This suggests that the Ministry of Education should continue to strengthen the delivery of educational inputs, but in doing so, it should also engage more closely with stakeholders at regional and woreda level, as well as frontline workers in education (i.e., head teachers and teachers). This can ensure that all stakeholders work with a common aim of raising learning outcomes and reducing inequalities in education.

2. Quality education reforms have protected against learning losses, but particular attention is needed for the most disadvantaged students

Our research shows that the benefits of the GEQIP reforms since 2008 have been significant. For instance, access to educational resources (such as textbooks and trained teachers) has improved, and technology support increased in schools. There has also been a remarkable increase in pre-primary and primary education enrolment. Nonetheless, data from the National Learning Assessment for students in primary Grades 4 and 8 demonstrates that less than 50 percent achieved the minimum required level recommended by the Ministry of Education. In addition, the proportion of children achieving this minimum standard has not increased since 2008.

We have been able to draw on our research to shed light into some of the dynamics of educational reform, particularly since 2012. For this, we draw on our survey with around 9,000 students sampled from 168 public primary schools in 8 regions from which we collected data in the academic years 2018/19, 2020/21, and 2021/22. We connect this with data from the Young Lives School Survey, which collected data on learning in Ethiopian schools during the 2012/13 academic year. This has enabled us to understand changes in learning in Ethiopian schools during the implementation of the second phase of GEQIP, changes in learning during the pandemic, and changes in learning after reopening of schools and the implementation of GEQIP E. 

Overall, we identified that mathematics learning levels for Grade 4 pupils have declined over time. This result is consistent with the overall findings provided by the National Learning Assessment. Our data allow us to look deeper into issues that affect equity in learning outcomes. Overall, more children were enrolled in education as more educational institutions and inputs became available (via GEQIP I and II). Moreover, there has been an increase in first generation learners into education. These first generation learners are more likely to come from relatively poorer households where they are less likely to access pre-school and get support at home, and therefore more likely to be low achievers.

More first-generation learners meant that on average, learning levels declined given the disadvantages they faced when entering school. However, this did not mean that teachers were not supporting learning. Quite the opposite. Our findings suggest that value-added learning over one academic year was stronger in 2018 relative to 2019 and these improvements were concentrated on those who were initially low achievers. Importantly, these improvements were associated with teacher knowledge of the subject (associated with GEQIP-II).

In addition, our results demonstrate that some groups of children from typically disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to see larger learning gains over the GEQIP-II period. Specifically, those living in relatively poorer areas, those in rural areas, and those who were low achievers at the start of the academic year were more likely to improve learning over the course of one academic year in 2018/19 relative to 2012/13. Part of the reason for these improvements is that more qualified teachers joined the profession and their subject knowledge increased (particularly via GEQIP II).

As in many other countries, the pandemic negatively impacted previous progress in education. Using data collected in the 2020/21 academic year (following school closures as a result of COVID-19), we estimated a numeracy loss equivalent to at least one third of the academic year in both Grades 1 and 4. For instance, using a comparable numeracy test at the start of Grade 4, pupils in the 2020/21 academic year were 10 points below pupils in 2018/19. By the end of the academic year, the difference was 22 points. Unfortunately, these differences were more marked for girls, as well as those from economically disadvantaged groups.

Importantly however, GEQIP-E-related reforms minimised learning losses in the context of COVID-19 in Ethiopia. In schools where reforms were executed successfully, we found that GEQIP-E had a modest positive association with value-added learning over an academic year. For instance, learning gains in mathematics at the end of the school year were associated with whether teachers received in-service training or whether the school principals were aware and well-informed about the GEQIP-E reform. Value-added was also strongest in schools which implemented provision for children with disabilities. As such, while learning inequalities have widened, these gaps were not as large in schools where the GEQIP-E reform seems to be more effectively implemented by schools.

For the Ministry of Education, our research suggests two important focus areas. First, the composition of the classroom is now different for teachers. More first-generation learners are expected to transition into education. This means preparing teachers with pedagogical approaches to support students who are likely to be engaging below curricular expectations. Second, the focus on equity must continue for those who require additional support. GEQIP-E has identified girls, children with disabilities, and those from pastoralist backgrounds as particular target groups. While the focus on these children should continue, the focus on these and other important intersectionalities of disadvantage should remain the focus of policy.

3. Timely evidence made accessible to Ministry of Education officials is vital for education responses in crisis situations

As with education systems around the world, Ethiopia was affected by school closures due to COVID-19. In the midst of the pandemic, the RISE Ethiopia team were asked by the Ministry of Education, through the Education Strategy Centre, to provide evidence that would help to reopen schools safely. We carried out phone surveys with 127 school principals and 316 teachers from both rural and urban locations across 7 regional states and the capital city of Addis Ababa and used baseline data collected in 2018 for the purpose of collecting contact phone addresses of respondents. The evidence gathered provided real-time information on challenges schools faced and found that interrupted education resulted in widened educational inequality, with significant gaps across income levels and gender.

We extensively engaged with the Ministry of Education and Regional Education Bureaus as well as the Ministry of Health to share and discuss our findings and provide recommendations for school reopening. The findings were presented to the Ministry of Education and directors of Regional Education Bureaus (including Addis Ababa, Amhara, Benshangul-Gumuz, Oromia, SNNP, and Somali). The Ministry also carried out a parallel study on school reopening, and the findings from our phone survey were highly aligned with their assessment. The Ministry of Education concluded that schools should reopen and accepted our recommendations around the importance of resuming classroom learning, instituting some degrees of physical distancing within schools, and forming school-level planning committees to co-ordinate complex tasks associated with the reopening.

Our research also showed that socio-emotional learning was adversely affected during school closures, with girls, those from the poorest households, and those living in rural areas particularly affected. Drawing on these findings, we suggested that attention needs to be paid to holistic (not just academic) learning.

An article in the Ethiopian Herald confirmed that the Government was pursuing the plans identified in our report – our research contributed timely recommendations about school reopening, with the result of 27 million children being told they could return to school to learn again. Lessons from our research continue to inform the resilience of the education system as other events have also affected the ability of schools to remain open, for instance conflict and instability as well as the effects of climate on livelihoods and infrastructure. In the future, short-term school closures could continue to be a reality and school stakeholders should be more prepared to continue to support children’s learning during these times.

Collaboration with the Ministry of Education is key to understanding how systems work

To conclude, the education sector is confronted with multiple and complex problems and overcoming these challenges requires systems thinking. The State Minister of General Education of Ethiopia, who expressed his great pleasure in participating in the end-of-project workshop, confirmed that systems thinking is a vital component of how the Government understands the nature of the learning crisis and how to support change. Research findings on improving education systems are crucial and timely for the ambitious transformational agenda that the Government has set for education.

The Ten-Year Perspective Development Plan for improving the welfare of society by improving the standard of living, and the Ministry of Education’s Sixth Education Sector Development Plan have set ambitious goals on the standard of living and learning. The traditional approach to responding to aspirations and expectations might not be adequate to address the complex challenges that the education sector has faced. A systems approach, on the other hand, can provide policy insights which help to achieve faster and most stable progress for current and future generations. The Minster also calls upon donors to continue the financial support to continue the reforms to achieve the education targets.

It takes time to detect improvements in learning outcomes, and a research programme like RISE Ethiopia has been central in supporting the Ministry of Education with evidence to understand the dynamics of change within a systems framework. The Government of Ethiopia is currently making many revisions to improve the quality and equity of education. It is encouraging to hear that the Government will use suggestions from the RISE Ethiopia research for future policy and planning, as confirmed by the Ethiopian News Agency following the workshop.

RISE blog posts and podcasts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.