Accelerated learning is an approach that’s been pioneered across Africa, including in Kenya, over the past decade to get out-of-school kids into education.

It compresses the typical school curriculum into a shorter time frame. Focusing on the essentials of literacy and numeracy, as well as social and emotional learning, helps children to catch up on what they’ve missed and transition into mainstream government schooling. Successful programmes have compressed three years of primary education into one school year.

This approach has been applied with children who are out of school by factors including extreme poverty, having to work, fleeing conflict, living as refugees, or being affected by health crises like the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Thousands of children have learned to read and write in the first foundational years of accelerated education, then transitioned into mainstream schools.

The Standard spoke to Dr Randa Grob-Zakhary, the Founder and CEO of Education.org, for further insight into accelerated education in Kenya.

Dr Randa Grob-Zakhary, Founder and CEO of Education.org. 

Are there successful examples of accelerated education programmes in Kenya?

Kenya has a wealth of experience with accelerated education, mostly through non-profit organisations working with vulnerable populations, such as teenage girls who dropped out of school due to pregnancy, or pastoralist and refugee communities in the northern part of the country.

In the refugee camps of Dadaab and Kakuma, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has been running an accelerated education programme that targets 10-18-year-olds who have either never been to school or had sporadic learning due to displacement and conflict. The programme focuses on reaching the most vulnerable children and includes community drives to identify students from the host community who may be out of school due to poverty or being orphaned.

Since 2017, the programme has enrolled over 8,000 students in both Dadaab and Kakuma, enabling many of them to transition to formal schools. An important element of these programmes is that they take a child-centred approach to learning, using interactive activities, small classes and psychosocial support that allows older students and students with traumatic experiences to integrate into the classroom and community.

How do these accelerated learning programmes compare with the new Competency Based Curriculum (CBC)?

The accelerated education programme run by Norwegian Refugee Council in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps for example is transitioning away from the previous 8-4-4 curriculum to Kenya’s new Competency Based Curriculum.

Level 1 condenses Grades 1 and 2 of this CBC curriculum, after which students then transition to formal school or continue within the accelerated education programme. NRC has been empowering its teachers with professional development, to also support them in condensing the new curriculum in line with accelerated education principles.

This kind of alignment of accelerated education programmes with official government education systems is critical for their success.  Accelerated education programmes should link closely to national curricula, calendars and exam timings to make it as easy as possible for young people to transition into formal schooling when they are ready.

Aligning with the government system helps to improve the quality and effectiveness of accelerated learning programmes, increasing their long-term sustainability and potential to scale up to reach large numbers.

In Ethiopia, for example, the Ministry of Education has fully adopted the Speed Schools accelerated education model into the formal system with a Speed Schools Unit, and now funds 75 per cent of accelerated education classes countrywide.

Students in the Luminos accelerated learning programme in Liberia. [Courtesy: The Luminos Fund]

Considering that a large number of children are out of school due to poverty, displacement or pregnancy, how else do these programs support the students other than literacy and numeracy?

A key element of accelerated education is the emphasis it puts on the well-being of the child. Social and emotional learning is an integral part of the formula and it’s adapted for specific situations and specific groups of children.

For example, in Kenya, the accelerated education programmes in the refugee camps of Kakuma and Dadaab pay special attention to supporting children’s recovery from traumatic events they experienced during conflicts and fleeing their homes.

NRC mobilizes a network of caregivers, teachers, and counsellors in a ‘Better Learning Programme’ that supports the students with practical skills to improve their wellbeing and restore a sense of normality and hope in their lives.

This programme in particular has been so effective in holistically supporting the students that the NGO implementing it – the Norwegian Refugee Council - is now supporting other partners in the region to implement the approach. 

Has the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in increased interest or adoption of accelerated learning programs?

The pandemic has caused an unprecedented interruption in children’s learning globally. The UN describes this as the worst education crisis on record.  School closures in lockdowns layered an acute crisis on top of an existing long term one of out of school children due to poverty, conflict and related causes. 

 A recent report from the World Bank, UN and partners said 70 per cent of ten-year-olds in low and middle-income countries cannot understand a simple written text, up from 57 per cent pre-pandemic.

There has been a lot of analysis of the problem - the challenge now for governments is how to help children to recover this lost learning and catch up, while at the same time addressing the ongoing crisis of out-of-school children.

There is no doubt that nations are giving more attention to effective accelerated and catch-up learning because of the pandemic. Our work sets out to provide the evidence in a practical form they can use immediately in their planning.

Students in an accelerated education classroom in Kakuma Refugee Camp. [Courtesy: Norwegian Refugee Council]

With 244 million children out of school and many more in school but learning little or having fallen behind due to the pandemic, we urgently need to see aggressive action to tackle the global learning crisis. Of particular importance is the need to meet the learning needs of the most marginalised young people, including girls, those displaced by conflict or climate change, and those with learning differences.

Education.org analyses the evidence on what works in global education and package it in a format that’s immediately actionable for policymakers. Our High-Level Policy Guidance Document adds to what has already been created from existing groups such as the Accelerated Education Working Group, a group of international organisations working in this field, by providing evidence-based guidance for governments, drawn from the diverse experiences of the countries we studied.

We produced a practical decision-making tool for policy leaders and their technical leadership teams. The feedback they’ve shared thus far is that it provides direct insights on accelerated education programmes and will serve as useful guidance as it speaks directly to the challenges they are currently facing.

The research states that Africa could recover over $18 billion if leaders adopt the best accelerated learning interventions to recover lost learning. What are some of the best practices recommended to governments?

The learning lost to the pandemic translates directly into lost earnings for the young people who have fallen behind during school closures.

Education.org sought to quantify just how much economic gain might be recovered from McKinsey estimates of pandemic-related GDP losses if the most effective strategies for accelerated and catch-up learning were applied.

McKinsey analysed UNESCO data on COVID-19 related school closures and World Bank data on “mitigation effectiveness” — such as quality online learning — to estimate the number of months of learning lost between February 2020 and January 2022.  The average student lost about eight months of learning — with significant variation by region.  By 2040, when the current cohort of school children will have joined the labour market, the lost learning amounts to a predicted global GDP loss of $1.6 trillion dollars per annum. 

A year of accelerated learning can cover up to three years of normally-paced learning, cutting the length of instruction by two-thirds - with the potential to be applied for even shorter periods of instruction – according to the best available evidence around accelerated education

If accelerated learning could be adapted for and extended to all students globally, and 66 per cent (two-thirds) of the time spent out of school due to pandemic school closures could be recovered, the global economy would benefit by $1 trillion dollars per annum by 2040 — when most of today’s K-12 students will have entered the workforce. Accordingly, each region stands to recover 66 per cent of the projected lost GDP shown above. Notably, Sub-Saharan Africa could recover up to $18 billion, over half of its predicted GDP loss of $28 billion.