Coherent for Equitable Learning? Understanding the Ethiopian Education System

In order to learn more about the effectiveness of recent education reforms in Ethiopia, the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) and the Early Learning Partnership (ELP) projects are adopting a ‘systems approach’ to research (Moore, 2015). In our research in Ethiopia, we aim to understand the extent to which the education system is coherent for equitable learning–for RISE, in relation to the General Education Quality Improvement Programme (GEQIP, a large-scale package of education reforms now starting its third phase), and for ELP, in relation to the introduction of ‘O-Class’, a new pre-primary early learning programme. This systems approach will allow us to examine the extent to which reforms are having an impact on the development of cognitive skills at primary school and school readiness respectively, and the reasons for any observed impact (or lack thereof).

The RISE and ELP research adopts a two-pronged approach to understanding ‘coherence for equitable learning’ within the Ethiopian education system. Firstly, recognising that learning outcomes are low for the majority of the school population, we aim to understand the extent to which recent education reforms improve low levels of learning for the majority; existing evidence points to a ‘learning crisis’ in Ethiopia in which the majority of children are not being prepared for schooling, and many are not sufficiently developing basic numeracy and literacy skills while in primary school (Woldehanna et al., 2016). Secondly, since children from marginalised backgrounds are the least likely to be learning, and evidence indicates that learning gaps between less and more advantaged groups start even before children start school (Woodhead et al., 2017), we focus on the extent to which education reforms improve learning for the most disadvantaged children in Ethiopia. This is particularly important since learning gaps in the early years of schooling can become reinforced and affect opportunities for learning later on in school and beyond, including with respect to access to higher education (Rose et al., 2016). The RISE and ELP research is particularly interested in how opportunities vary among disadvantaged groups, linked to poverty, gender, or location, and including pastoralists, linguistic minorities, and children with disabilities (Woldehanna and Jones, 2006; Woldab, 2012; Tesfay and Malmberg, 2014; Beyene and Tizazu, 2010).

For our RISE Ethiopia research, it is clear that planning documents in Ethiopia include a focus on learning outcomes, but to date this has been less apparent with respect to equity. However, as GEQIP moves into its third phase, there is an increased focus on equity – this phase of reforms is in fact named ‘GEQIP-E’, in recognition of its attention to ‘E’ for equity (World Bank, 2017). Programme documentation includes more explicit attention to the challenges facing girls, children with special educational needs, and children from pastoralist communities. While it is therefore clear that there is greater recognition of equity issues within the education system, questions remain on whether these strategies are appropriate to meet the learning needs of different groups and, if so, whether these strategies are implemented effectively. These questions on design and implementation are at the heart of our approach to understanding the effectiveness of Ethiopia’s education system.

In this document, we outline a conceptual basis for examining whether there is ‘coherence’ in the Ethiopian education system with respect to equitable learning. Our approach includes a model of accountability relationships within the Ethiopian system using a framework drawing on Pritchett’s (2015) and di Gropello’s (2004) work on accountability within education systems. We also draw on Kingdon et al.’s (2014) approach to political economy analysis as a guide to understanding the multi-dimensional nature of power dynamics within these accountability relationships, and we further consider change over time from the design to implementation of education reforms.

The intention of this document is not to provide a comprehensive review of existing literature on accountability and the political economy of education. Rather, in developing this conceptual framework, we limit our focus to the literature that is most relevant to the RISE and ELP research.  Pritchett’s (2015) RISE framework is therefore our starting point, and we then engage with Kingdon et al (2014) as a key paper which provides a conceptual approach to political economy analysis within the field of education specifically. This abbreviated approach to conceptualisation is in the interest of moving from the theory to practice of systems research, for the purposes of collecting data in the initial phases of our RISE and ELP research and in order to inform subsequent work in this area. At the end of this note, we offer reflections on how our conceptual framework will guide key stakeholder interviews and other methodological approaches as part of a systems approach in the RISE and ELP research.