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Despite going to school, millions of children learning only very little

To have any meaning, the right to education must ensure learning. For most children around the world, including Kenya, it does not. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

The UN calls World Children's Day a day “to advocate, promote and celebrate children's rights”. And key among those is the right to education. Superficially, states have made great progress in ensuring this right is realised. Decades of enrollment drives mean that around 90 per cent of primary-age children are in school.

But to have any meaning, the right to education must ensure learning. For most children around the world, including Kenya, it does not.

According to the development economist Prof Lant Pritchett, Director of the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, such a catastrophic scenario exists because – incredibly – many education systems simply do not prioritise learning. “They exist for a variety of purposes,” says Pritchett.

“They push kids through schools, they build out the school systems, they are committed to attendance. They are committed to enrollment. They are committed to the trappings of it. But they don’t have a clear, driven purpose, a driving commitment to learning.”

UNICEF estimates that two out of every three 10-year-olds globally cannot read a simple sentence. Hundreds of millions of children around the world are in school, but learning nothing. Their right to education is hollow.

Africa has a particular challenge, as a new UNESCO study of foundational learning in Africa spells out: “Children in Africa are seven times less likely than children in the rest of the world to be prepared for the future in reading and five times less likely to be prepared for the future in mathematics.”

But such a daunting situation is also increasingly inspiring many African governments to action, with the goal of driving economic development by unlocking the dormant potential of so many of their young people. The government of Rwanda is one. Its RwandaEQUIP programme describes itself as: “A transformative programme to make the country’s basic education system globally competitive.”

Underpinning RwandaEQUIP is data-driven technology, high-quality learning materials, and ongoing training and coaching for government teachers and school leaders. NewGlobe is the programme’s technical partner. Teachers are supported with tablets to deliver bespoke lesson plans optimised for their students; they also provide a feedback loop of data. Without it, measuring and driving improvement is impossible.

In southern Nigeria, the EdoBEST education transformation programme has been running since 2018 in Edo state. Covering 1,000 primary schools in its first phase, it has expanded to include junior secondary and progressive schools – those in hard-to-reach communities – with the strong support and financial assistance of the World Bank.

“Within Nigeria, EdoBEST is doing so well by helping to improve foundational learning. The management of the World Bank thinks that this is a model that can be scaled to other states in Nigeria,” explained Senior Economist Gloria Joseph-Raji on a visit to the state in October.

There is overwhelming evidence that such a data-driven, evidence-based focus on driving up learning outcomes works. An independent study led by Professor Michael Kremer, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, used a randomised control trial to measure the effects of NewGlobe’s teaching methods in schools in Kenya – the same methods underpinning RwandaEQUIP, EdoBEST and similar programmes in Liberia, Lagos and Kwara states in Nigeria and Manipur state in India.

It found learning benefits “among the largest in the international education literature, particularly for a programme that was already operating at scale”. Crucially, the biggest learning gains came in the early years. Pre-primary children were nearly a year and a half of learning ahead of peers in other schools after two years of participation. Primary children were nearly a year ahead. Grade One students in NewGlobe-supported schools – typically age six or seven – were more than three times as likely to be able to read as their counterparts. When the Edo state government commissioned an academic study into learning gains under EdoBEST, it found students were learning as much in one term as they were learning previously in a whole year.

The economic argument for fixing the dislocation between education and learning has been analysed in a new study co-authored by the Yidan Prize winner Professor Eric Hanushek: “According to our projections based on historical patterns of long-run growth, the world would gain $718 trillion in added GDP over the remaining century if it were to reach global universal basic skills. This is equivalent to over five times the current annual world GDP.”

With such an overwhelming economic argument in favour of learning, why are so many education systems still broken? One reason, highlighted in the same UNESCO study of foundational learning in Africa, is the current inability of so many to gather accurate data, detailing what students know, and how they progress, to make good policy decisions:

The Governor of Nigeria’s Lagos state, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, stresses the importance of data gathering for his EKOEXCEL education transformation programme. “We can check from the tablet what attendance we have in our schools; which teacher has come in and what are the lesson notes. You can design the same curriculum, irrespective of which part of the state the schools are in. So, you can have the same quality in terms of input and the expected outcome from education."

The theme of this year’s day is “Inclusion, for every child.” But to drive development and economic success for all children, their communities and their countries, we need to see the day when the right to education is coupled with the right to learn. That will be a World Children’s Day to celebrate even more.

The writer, Reuben Wambugu, is Africa Director, NewGlobe.