African policymakers from nine countries discuss the largest delivery challenges in education posed by COVID-19
At the start of 2020, African policymakers knew this would be a defining decade for delivering quality education to the more than 550 million children across Africa, 100 million of whom were not in school (UNICEF, 2020). Not long after the decade began, the coronavirus pandemic resulted in school shutdowns that affected more than 1.6 billion learners worldwide; across sub-Saharan Africa, school systems remained fully closed for an average of 16.5 weeks (UNESCO, 2021). By late 2020, the number of out-of-school children rose to 350 million and concerns grew over whether these children would return to education even after the pandemic’s end.
Launching a community of practice focused on delivery in education
With heightened urgency to improve education service delivery across Africa, the Education Commission and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) launched a community of practice which brings policymakers from across the continent together every two months to discuss delivery challenges and strategies for addressing them. These regular sessions are designed around country needs and informed by the ongoing DeliverEd research on delivery approaches used in Ghana and Tanzania.
The first convening of the African Policymaker Forum on Delivery Approaches and COVID-19 Response took place on May 12, 2021, with representatives from education ministries in Angola, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leone.
Learning from African countries currently using delivery approaches
In 2018, the government of Ghana outlined an ambitious education reform agenda to transform teaching and learning across the country. To support the coordination of implementing these reforms, the Ministry of Education established the National Education Reform Secretariat, a delivery unit that supports capacity building, creates accountability mechanisms, and works to resolve bottlenecks and obstacles to successful implementation. Akwasi Addae-Boahene, policy advisor to the Reform Secretariat, was invited to the Forum to share key lessons from Ghana’s experience in establishing the delivery unit, which is one of the case studies for the DeliverEd Initiative.
Mr. Addae-Boahene emphasized the importance of leadership and capacity for successful delivery of reforms. “Anyone establishing a delivery unit in their country should think about how to provide leadership throughout the whole system at all different levels and how to find the staff with the right skills and orientation to do this.” His presentation also discussed the importance of considering a system’s capacity to take on a delivery approach, referencing the Reform Secretariat’s decision to bring in experts from the private sector. Mr. Addae-Boahene described the need for his team to combine the strengths of the private consultants with those of the existing staff of civil servants in an environment that was new for both parties. He also touched on the importance of considering the culture of accountability that is often required for delivery approaches to succeed, and the possibility of fatigue or pushback from institutions who might question the authority of an independent unit to demand results in a new way.
Participants reflect on delivery challenges across Africa
Former Minister of Education of Zimbabwe, H.E. Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka, reflected on his own experiences in delivery and endorsed the Forum’s goal of convening African policymakers to address the critical barriers to implementation in education.
He invited participants to share “what hurts the most” in their countries because of COVID-19 and challenges that existed long before the pandemic.
Here are some of the collective challenges many ministries are facing:
- Delivering education remotely is new for many education systems. Many participants shared that their education systems were largely unprepared to pivot to distance learning models in such a short period of time. Many households lacked access to critical infrastructure, like internet connection, devices, and electricity, that would support the switch to remote learning. Monitoring progress for schools and students remotely was also a challenge for ministries, who could not always understand the reach and impact of remote learning programs. One participant remarked, “We learned there’s a lot of community stakeholders who can help, but the education system wasn’t prepared to capitalize on their help. The role of the parents, civil societies, literate people at home, teachers at home, what could they have done? This was new for the ministry.”
- Sacrificing longer-term priorities to focus on immediate needs. Several countries acknowledged the tension that a crisis like COVID-19 poses to advancing other longer-term efforts, such as reforming national curricula and pre-service and in-service teacher education programming. However, several reflected on how these reforms will be shifted to highlight new skills and competencies that teachers and students should learn to make education systems more resilient.
- Prioritization remains critical but challenging with resource constraints. Participants noted that while difficult decisions and trade-offs are not new, they have been heightened by the pandemic and for some countries, this has squeezed education budgets and created bigger capacity constraints for civil servants. One participant stated that “all the challenges we mentioned could be addressed much better with stronger resources. We had to reorient our resources towards support to get out of the situation.”
But even amidst these challenges, several innovations and opportunities for learning emerged:
- Opportunities for innovation and catalyzed action. Despite the exceptional challenges, policymakers reflected that COVID-19 also presented opportunities to experiment with innovative strategies they had not previously attempted (like low-tech learning solutions, digital platforms for teachers to receive training and support, etc.) and consider which of these strategies might become permanent fixtures in their education systems. As one policymaker shared, “COVID was a lab for us to experiment with a lot of things to build a resilient system. We have measures that not only preserve us during the pandemic, but also help the education system [in the future].” In one country, low digital literacy skills for teachers were identified as a central challenge to delivering high-quality, remote learning during school closures. The government has since worked to create legislation to provide digital literacy training to teachers, something that the participant said did not exist before, but that COVID illuminated the need to prioritize.
- Piloting new methods for collecting data and monitoring impact. Collecting data on the impact of policies and programs presented a new opportunity for ministries to utilize phone surveys and other methods. One country detailed their ongoing campaign to use rapid data analytics to assess departmental performance, better understand COVID-19 responsiveness, track student dropouts, and monitor teacher allocation.
Looking ahead to provide ongoing support during COVID-19 response and recovery efforts
The African Policymaker Forum will meet on a bi-monthly basis, creating a regular touchpoint for knowledge generation and sharing between participants and experts who have experience delivering education in Africa. The next forum will take place on July 14, 2021.