This former GATE program Learning Assistant is now a student teacher in Sierra Leone. The GATE program supports young women from rural communities in Sierra Leone to become teachers.
COVID-19 and the education workforce
The COVID-19 crisis has created extremely challenging circumstances for more than 63 million primary and secondary teachers globally due to massive and extended school closures and now reopenings. Teachers have been rapidly mobilizing and innovating to deliver distance learning, communicating health and safety measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, and reaching out to families and students to support their immediate needs. The critical role of teachers in ensuring safe and quality education for all students has been unequivocally recognized around the world during the pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, many education systems struggled to get enough trained and qualified teachers in the right places to meet growing demand and to allocate them equitably. Even where systems did have a sufficient number of teachers, those teachers often worked in relative isolation and were expected to fulfill increasingly diverse roles (Schleicher, 2011) and support a wide range of student learning needs.
The pandemic has demonstrated clearly that teachers cannot work alone: teachers have been working closely with school leaders, parents and caregivers, volunteers, and community health workers to ensure learning continues during school closures and no child is left behind. The Save Our Future campaign’s recently launched White Paper – Averting an Education Catastrophe for the World’s Children – calls on countries to support teachers and other members of the workforce to work as learning teams so they can ensure all children receive the quality education they deserve during these challenging times.
Learning teams as a promising model
What are learning teams? Learning teams are groups of professionals and other supporting roles led by teachers that collaborate inside the classroom, and within schools, districts, and systems to ensure learning for all. Learning teams will be different in every context and at every level in the system. They can include qualified teachers, education support personnel, leadership and management, health and welfare specialists and engage the community to draw on local knowledge and support, especially from parents and caregivers. No matter the number or combination of roles, the team should be focused on putting the learner at the center and meeting their immediate needs.
Emerging evidence suggests that supporting teachers and learners with a multidisciplinary team-based approach can be an effective way to improve student learning. Team-based approaches are integral in other sectors, such as health and early childhood development, where they have demonstrated improvements in service delivery, outcomes, and cost-effectiveness (D’Amour et al., 2009). While few education systems employ a formal learning team approach, differentiated teaching roles (such as specialist teachers) and other non-instructional roles (school leaders, community volunteers) often exist alongside classroom teachers to support inclusion and other education outcomes. For further evidence and examples of learning teams, see the Transforming the Education Workforce report.
The key element of a learning team is that different roles collaborate to leverage a variety of expertise and experience to meet the needs of all students. This means that the diverse needs of each child can be met, as it takes a team to educate a child. Creating learning teams can provide teachers with more support during the crisis response, maintain continuity of learning during school closures, and engage parents and the community. Most importantly, teams can support underserved areas and inclusion of marginalized groups. The GATE program in Sierra Leone serves as an excellent example of this.
An example of learning teams in Sierra Leone
In Sierra Leone, as in many countries, a lack of qualified teachers in underserved areas, especially those typically in short supply like female or science teachers, undermines education for the poorest and most marginalized children. Only 27 percent of teachers at primary level and 14 percent at secondary level in Sierra Leone are female (UIS, 2016). This has immediate consequences on girls’ enrollment, retention, and achievement as well as school culture and the longer-term impact on girls’ aspirations, safety in school, and job prospects (Evans & Le Nestor, 2019; Kirk, 2006). In fact, only 38.1 percent of girls are enrolled in secondary school in Sierra Leone (World Bank, 2020), and the impact of school closures due to COVID-19 could further exacerbate education attainment for girls.
The Sierra Leone Girls’ Access to Education (GATE) program, funded by UK Aid through the Girls’ Education Challenge, supports young women from rural communities who show an interest in becoming teachers but do not have the required qualifications or financial means to enter teacher education programs. The women are selected by the community and local headteachers and participate in a bridging program, where they become Learning Assistants in a local primary school while simultaneously participating in a distance learning program in mathematics and English. They work alongside and are supported by a classroom teacher and head teacher as well as specialist tutors in English and mathematics. They are supported by Teacher Training College lecturers, the project’s district supervisors, and important figures in the community, such as social workers and village leaders. Learning Assistants feel part of a network of teachers and students, and exposure to the wider community and people of higher status helps them form new relationships with professionals and other key roles (Crisp et al., 2017; Naylor et al., 2019).
After 12 to18 months, Learning Assistants take the entrance exam for the Teacher Training College and become student teachers. Those who are successful continue their school placements whilst studying on the Teachers’ Certificate Distance program to become qualified primary school teachers. The program has already supported over 750 Learning Assistants, who have made a difference to the quality of rural schools and the experiences of local children. They promote learning and aspiration, particularly for female pupils (Crisp et al., 2017; Naylor et al., 2019).
The program also strongly supports inclusion, with a focus on marginalized girls and children with disabilities. Learning Assistants are trained on inclusive education principles and support inclusion within their classrooms and communities. The program is also piloting itinerant specialist teachers who are given additional training and move from school to school to support classroom teachers and learning assistants who have children with disabilities in their classroom. The program also utilizes over 200 community-based rehabilitation volunteers who are given training to support identification of children with disabilities at the community level and liaise with families to encourage and support them to enroll and keep their children with disabilities in school. These volunteers are chosen by the community and often have a disability themselves (Chamberlain & Safford, 2019; Jigsaw Consulting, 2020).
As the Sierra Leone GATE-GEC program illustrates, learning teams can be created and leveraged even in the most underserved areas, drawing on the existing expertise and experience of those in a community and supporting them to work together to support students. To succeed, the relevant training and professional development, enabling structures, and buy-in must be in place to support this concerted collaboration of the education workforce.
Learning teams beyond COVID-19
As countries plan for reopening schools and attempt to build more resilient and flexible systems post-COVID, they should look at their education workforce holistically and leverage existing expertise and experience. This can include local education authorities and schools, in collaboration with teachers, communities and other sectors, creating student-centered learning teams. These teams can support teachers with existing teaching and learning roles (such as teacher trainees); pair the most experienced and strongest teachers with those with less experience; and recruit and train community members and parents as “community education workers” to support differentiated instruction, continuity of learning, and the welfare and inclusion of all children.
If created in a systematic way with the relevant support, structures, and practices, learning teams could support not only COVID response and recovery but promote real progress on some of education’s most intractable challenges that existed before the pandemic. Averting an Education Catastrophe for the World’s Children calls on countries to provide support for the workforce, especially during the crisis but beyond – so they can work together as true learning teams to help #SaveOurFuture.
Crisp, Martin, Kimberly Safford, and Freda Wolfenden. 2017. “It takes a village to raise a teacher: The Learning Assistant programme in Sierra Leone.” The Open University and Plan International. Available at: http://oro.open.ac.uk/49603/
D’Amour, Danielle, Marcela Ferrada-Videla, Leticia San Martin Rodriguez, and Marie-Dominique Beaulieu. (2009). “The conceptual basis for interprofessional collaboration: Core concepts and theoretical frameworks.” Journal of Interprofessional Care 19(1):116-31. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/13561820500082529
Evans, D., & Le Nestour, A. (2019). “Are female teachers better for girls’ education?” Washington, DC: Center for Global Development. Available at: https://www.cgdev.org/blog/are-female-teachers-better-girls-education
Jigsaw Consulting. (2020). “Girls’ Access to Education (GATE) GATE GEC-T Midline Report.” FCDO Girls’ Education Challenge.
Kirk, J. (2006). “The impact of women teachers on girls’ education.” Advocacy Brief, UNESCO Bangkok. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000145990_eng
Naylor, R., Jones, C., & Boateng, P. (2019). “Strengthening the education workforce.” Background paper for Transforming the Education Workforce: Learning Teams for a Learning Generation. New York: Education Commission. Available at:
Schleicher, Andreas. (2011). Building a High-Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from around the World. Paris: OECD Publishing. Available at: http://www.oecd.org/education/school/programmeforinternationalstudentassessmentpisa/buildingahigh-qualityteachingprofessionlessonsfromaroundtheworld.htm
World Bank. (2020). “Sierra Leone Economic Update: The Power of Investing in Girls.” Washington, DC: World Bank. Available at: