Education World Forum 2016: Scaling Up Quality Early Learning in Ethiopia
By 2030 we will ' collectively have ensure[d] that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education'. We will, in 2030, turn to two indicators (as proposed) and see that all children are receiving early childhood development services and that indices of early childhood development are meeting our expectations across four domains: literacy/numeracy, physical, socio-emotional and cognitive development. The path to achieving this goal by 2030 will feature as a topic of discussion during this week's Education World Forum in London.
Of course this is not a simple task. It's not really one task either, with multiple levels of 'care' in two dimensions: access with quality. While the word 'quality' is often somewhat meaningless, it also happens to be the word of most importance in the above proposition. For, without quality in early learning, the tool that might become a powerful, cost-effective investment to help reduce inequalities could have the reverse effect.
But how might 'spider' systems of government that are generally 'terrific at logistical tasks' such as the rapid-roll out of access to early education, ensure quality in service delivery? How might they ensure quality and not only an extension of the number of levels to which resources must be supplied?
Writing a plan is easy. Implementing that plan is the challenge.
Ethiopia's Ministry of Education has a strong history of sector planning. Now in its fifth edition, the national Education Sector Development Programme (ESDP V) sets ambitious targets for the academic years 2015/16 to 2019/20. During previous plan periods, from an enrolment level of under 100,000 in 2000 and from a private supply to predominantly urban families in 2006, pre-primary enrolment now reaches over 3,000,000 children (with almost 90% in rural areas), almost half of the 4-6 year old target audience. This rapid increase follows strong demand from communities and government support to the early years. This rapid increase also encourages great ambitions for the next five years. ESDP V highlights pre-primary education as a priority, with the goal: 'to provide all children with access to pre-primary education for school preparedness'. Ethiopia is set to extend service delivery to reach 80% of children aged 4-6 years old by 2020 - well on course to the access commitment made in the SDGs. But how to deliver effective pre-primary education to a population of 4-6 year olds that will reach 8 million in 2020? How to encourage innovation, learning and constant improvement in a large system with 'sincere decentralisation' ? These are the big questions.
A pause before the rush
In ESDP V, the government is clear that, just before (but to some extents alongside) continuing rapid expansion it wishes to pause, investigate and use lessons learned.. to inform expansion choices. The Ministry of Education's School Improvement Program Directorate wants to understand what is going on at pre-primary levels across Ethiopia's eleven regions. How are the core programs being delivered? Where are innovative approaches and links between programs apparent and can these offer benefits or lessons to others? This is where Young Lives comes in. In collaboration with the School Improvement Program directorate and the government of Ethiopia's Education Strategy Centre, Young Lives education research seeks to improve the design and implementation of the pre-primary education system in Ethiopia. Having commenced in late November 2015, in recent weeks, the project team - combining government staff, national and international ECCE experts - has conducted a mapping of early education provision in Ethiopia, including consultations with six regional educational bureaus; analysed education management data to visualise enrolment trends and held a two-day consultative workshop with Ethiopia's national ECCE Taskforce. In addition, a policy paper of international experience on Scaling up access to quality Early Education in Ethiopia is published this week.
The six features of effective ECCE systems
The characteristics of effective ECCE, as expressed in the international literature, are many but there is also consensus around the following six features of quality systems. These begin with equitable and inclusive access and then draw attention to five features that jump to focus on ensuring quality.
Working within the framework offered by these six features, first the policy paper establishes some key characteristics of effective ECCE systems. These lessons are then applied to the specific plans of Ethiopia, with key policy lessons given for rapidly scaling up equitable access to quality pre-primary education. While the details are specific to Ethiopia, many of the general principles apply more broadly. By this approach, the policy paper moves away from a theoretical explanation of 'what works' in early education and instead sets the international experience firmly in the Ethiopian political, economic and planning context - in fact alongside current plans and strategies. This approach offers more relevance for policy makers and is already supporting Ethiopia's preparations for the Education World Forum.
Bringing it all together
Hopefully, as the system chases to reach ambitious enrolment targets, this research initiated by the tireless School Improvement Program director, Ato Yasabu, can help him and his colleagues to target resource allocations and establish a framework in which each of Ethiopia's eleven regions can make local judgments to improve quality of early learning. Perhaps also it's possible - in the rush to reach more and more of the soon to be 8 million children - to capture not only the 'low hanging fruit' but use pre-primary education as a tool to increase equity in the education system.
And next steps for the Young Lives team ? Back to Ethiopia's regions, down to woreda (district) and school levels and see what is happening in classrooms. Then, bring it all together to support the Ministry of Education to improve its implementation plans and to raise funding for early education.