"Only one third of the children in East Africa have acquired the expected basic skills at the required level."
A colleague once narrated an incident that took place in one of the schools where her organisation has a programme aimed at improving teachers' pedagogy skills. This programme targets a small number of teachers in the early Grades by offering continuous on-the-job training to teachers, aimed at improving their basic teaching skills. If a school has more than one stream of the same class, only one teacher can be selected to participate in the programme.
And so it was in this school, that one stream of Class 2 children had a teacher named Maria who was chosen. The other stream of Class 2 children had a teacher named Jane, who was not. Unfortunately, Jane was taken ill. As is often the case in schools, Maria stepped in. She combined the two classes and continued teaching, employing the new participatory methods she had been introduced to. Maria had to prepare for a larger class but took it in her stride. After Jane had recuperated, she returned to school to claim her pupils, only to find that they now refused to leave their new classroom. Luckily for these pupils, the school listened to their wish. It was agreed that Jane would become an assistant teacher to Maria. The school put forth a request to ensure that Jane also receive additional training.
Jane, like Maria, is a trained teacher. Both are experienced teachers too, each having served for more than five years. The main difference between the two is that Maria received additional training that boosted her basic teaching skills. She is being retooled. And the evidence of her efficacy as a teacher is best attested by the decision the pupils made. Maria is their choice of teacher, and understandably so. Her class is a joy to be in. It's a hive of activity, with evidence of engaged pupils doing, practicing, and most importantly - learning.
Teacher Maria represents the new crop of teachers demanded in today's era. Today's society is vibrant. Technology has revolutionised the way information flows. Learning happens in so many ways. Yet, schools and classrooms have remained static. Teachers have mostly been left on their own to figure out how to teach. Some have succeeded, others have not.
It is therefore not surprising that systems of education have ended up serving a select few. Many go to school but do not gain the necessary skills and competencies. What is the evidence? For the last three years, Uwezo has conducted large scale assessments to understand the actual abilities of children aged six to 16 years, in reading, comprehension and arithmetic. Every year, tens of thousands of children across East Africa have been assessed in the largest household-based survey in the region. The results have been constant. Only one third of the children in East Africa have acquired the expected basic skills at the required level. Towards the end of the primary school cycle, two out of every 10 children do not have Grade 2 level competencies in reading and numeracy.
Despite the good intentions and huge investments made by parents, governments and funding agencies, the evidence suggests that schools still continue to churn out semi-literate and semi-numerate citizens. This is the same population societies are bequeathing their future to.
It has often been said that the two critical pillars that will not only cushion the basic education promise many states have made to their citizens but also translate it to learning, are the teacher and the parent. If a retooled teacher, like Maria, receives support from parents, learning will be reignited. Schools will become magnets that draw learners and retain them long enough to complete their cycle. Pupils will want to be in school and will enjoy being in the classroom. In the early Grades for example, we shall see discernible skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic being learned. Children will receive the foundational skills necessary to prepare them for the lifelong learning voyage.
Unfortunately, there is inadequate insistence at demanding specific learning outcomes of the education system. Uwezo in East Africa has adapted the citizen driven methodology that produces the Annual Status of Education Report in India to galvanise citizens (some of whom are parents) to think critically about their role in ensuring that their children learn. A common adage often used is that it takes a village to raise a child. In other words, every person or institution has a role to play. Policies need to clearly articulate and monitor the acquisition of competencies across the system. Funding needs to be availed for the 'soft' issues like capacity building, in equal measure as other inputs like books and classrooms.
Parents need to play their part, even undertaking tasks as simple as listening to their children read. It is this environment that will make teacher Maria excel. We can use the renewed attention to early learning to (re)ignite the call for an inclusive and quality education for all. The future of a nation demands this.
Sara Ruto is the regional manager of Uwezo East Africa, an initiative that conducts household-based abilities assessments