What Will it Take to Raise Learning Outcomes for all Children in Ethiopia? Translating Commitment Into Action Through Evidence


Image of Pauline Rose

Pauline Rose

RISE Ethiopia

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

Image of Tassew Woldehanna

Tassew Woldehanna

RISE Ethiopia

Addis Ababa University

As the Education Sustainable Development Goal galvanises support towards achieving inclusive and equitable quality education for all, the world has much to learn from the experience of Ethiopia: a country which recognises education as a pathway to economic transformation. We are excited to be joining the Research for Improving Systems of Education (RISE) programme with the aim of providing an evidence-base to identify whether, and how, Ethiopia’s commitment is leading to action for raising learning for the most vulnerable.

The sustained commitment of the Ethiopian Government towards education has already paid off in many ways. The country has shown amongst the most impressive gains globally in expanding access to primary schooling over the past two decades. In the mid-1990’s, only around one in five children had the chance to go to school, with boys outnumbering girls. According to annual statistics published by the Ministry of Education, almost all children now have this opportunity.  The present challenge is to convert this rapid expansion in enrolment into better learning outcomes, most notably for marginalised children: girls, those living in extreme poverty, pastoral and linguistic minority populations, and children with disabilities.

As in many other countries, the massive expansion in enrolment has placed pressure on the education system with reports showing that already low learning levels have been stagnating or even declining in recent years. This learning crisis is perhaps unsurprising as the composition of classrooms has changed dramatically, with millions of children being the first in their families to go to school. Our research will aim to gain a better understanding of how greater diversity in the classroom is affecting learning for children from different backgrounds. For example, are those who were previously learning, now adversely affected by the expansion, or rather, is the reason for low learning levels more related to the difficulties that first-generation pupils face? Furthermore, we will investigate whether policy reforms have tackled the challenges of disadvantaged children now in school – and how successful these reforms have been.

Recognising the need for transformation, the Government has put in place an ambitious programme of reforms aimed at transforming the quality of education. The programme extends from providing pre-schooling (to ensure children are ready for entering primary school) to strengthening teacher development, reforming the curriculum, providing school grants, and school feeding. The question arises whether the set of reforms associated with the Government’s General Education Quality Improvement Package (GEQIP) - which is now in its second phase – is having the desired impact on raising learning for all children, regardless of where they live or their background. This question is central to our research, which we believe will provide important insights beyond Ethiopia itself. It is one of the few low-income countries that has established such a wide-ranging programme of this kind, aimed specifically at tackling the quality of education. The team hopes to fully understand GEQIP and the implications of different interpretations of the programme, as they have potential implications for the success (or otherwise) in the design and implementation of the programme. Notably, a lack of coherence across stakeholders in their understanding of the motivations for the programme, and therefore the selection of elements within it, could lead to the package not achieving its aim of quality education for all children.

Against the backdrop of the Government’s commitment, the first step of our RISE research will be to understand what has driven the design of the reform and how successfully it has been implemented. For this, we will seek the views of policymakers and others involved in establishing the programme. We will aim to find out the motivation for choosing the components of the reform package and to understand how the Government anticipated an increase in equitable learning for all children.

From this, we hope to identify the extent of coherence across perspectives of different stakeholders. Do they agree on priorities? Where coherence is lacking, in what ways has this affected the successful implementation of reforms and what can be done to address this? The answers to these questions will inform our quantitative analysis over a five-year period across different regions in Ethiopia. The approach adopted will help identify variations depending on locations and children’s background. Using this information, we can probe further to understand the reasons for any variations which, in turn, will feed back to questions of coherence in design and implementation, both nationally and regionally.

The RISE country research team comprises experts within Ethiopia and is internationally led by the Ethiopian Development Research Institute in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, together with the Institute for Educational Research at Addis Ababa University, the Ethiopian Education Strategy Centre, and University College London’s Institute of Education. This inter-disciplinary team, including economists, psychologists, anthropologists, and development studies experts, is well-placed to respond to this ambitious research agenda. This mix of expertise will enable the team to gain an understanding through both quantitative and qualitative methods not only of whether the quality education programme is working, but also the reasons behind its success or failure, and the effects on different groups of the population. Collectively, the team has extensive experience of researching what works to deliver better learning for all. The team’s experience builds on the important work of Young Lives that has already catalysed important policy change in Ethiopia, including promoting new models of pre-school.

With live debates currently taking place on the potential for a third phase of the GEQIP, we hope our evidence will inform the on-going development of Ethiopia’s education sector programming. Hopefully, the engagement between evidence, policy, and practice will result in Ethiopia showing the same success in raising learning for all children as the country has already achieved in extending access. Ultimately, the goal is that the evidence from the research will inform global action for other countries aiming to raise learning for all children, especially for those who are the first generation to go to school, and so contribute to ending the learning crisis.

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