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Classroom closed by COVID-19
The pandemic has led to a crisis in learning, with mass school closures in Uganda and worldwide.
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Strengthening education systems in a time of crisis

The Strengthening Education Systems for Improved Learning (SESIL) programme in Uganda aims to enhance the quality of learning outcomes for primary school children. Charlie Gordon, SESIL’s technical team leader, discusses how the programme’s response to COVID-19 shows that an urgent solution to a crisis can also be a sustainable one.

When crises strike, the reflex of the education development community is to intervene directly in a way that meets the immediate needs of the children in their locality.

While this is a well-intentioned tactic, there is a risk that piecemeal approaches can actually weaken the wider education system, by undermining its resilience and capacity to respond to emergencies.

A massive disruption, such as the COVID-19 pandemic that has closed schools of all kinds across the globe, can provoke a splintered, localised response when a co-ordinated, national approach would prove more widely beneficial.

There’s a temptation to look for a ‘sticking plaster’ remedy that will provide some immediate relief. Longer-term measures to improve the system can surely wait? On the contrary, I believe the COVID-19 crisis is further evidence of the need to take a systems-strengthening approach at all times.

This is partly because the pandemic is not a V-shaped crisis with a rapid return to normal. The impact of the pandemic will be prolonged. Governments will need to respond to recurring outbreaks, as schools open and close, with different opening patterns. Far better, therefore, to help the system fine-tune its response for the period of disruption ahead, with the aim of building the system back better than before.

Integrate to innovate

In Uganda, our team at the UK aid-funded Strengthening Education Systems for Improved Learning (SESIL) programme – which is managed by Cambridge Education, Mott MacDonald’s specialist education consultancy – have tried to find solutions to the COVID-19 crisis that are both immediate and sustainable.

We have worked closely with the Government of Uganda to understand its priorities and support its COVID Response Task Force. We saw our role as injecting a sense of urgency and pace into the Government’s response, helping with its planning and adding value within the Ministry of Education and Sports’ networks wherever we could.

Learning in lockdown

  • SESIL has helped local governments to provide radio lessons to more than half a million children, reaching over 50% of the target population.
  • More than 3,000 broadcasts (including repeats) carried over 1,000 early grade lessons in literacy and numeracy across 18 radio stations in 11 languages.
  • The radio talk-shows and call-ins give parents advice on how to support their children’s learning at home, and keep them safe.

We supported the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) in its efforts to produce distance learning materials for five million children. It’s interesting to note that some other members of the education community in Uganda decided to present their own, independent materials for endorsement, which distracted the overstretched NCDC from its core work.

Embedded within the NCDC team, we started by quality assuring their early grade materials and supporting the management of translating materials into mother tongue through local language boards. Local authorities were also struggling to develop and broadcast radio shows, which were identified as the most effective medium for remote learning.

We therefore worked closely with the writing team and drew on international best practice to develop radio materials for early grade literacy and numeracy lessons. We supported the logistics of getting teachers to recording studios safely and negotiated agreements with local and regional radio stations to secure the airtime.

Flow of real-time data

Ensuring that the Ministry is able to draw on real-time frontline data to inform thinking in an ever-changing context, SESIL’s local government staff conduct weekly surveys of parents, teachers and officials.

The surveys gather feedback on a range of priority issues identified by the Ministry, including access and quality of distance learning materials, prevalence of violence against children in the communities, school reopening plans and concerns on safety. These are compiled in a weekly dashboard and reviewed by task team members and the NCDC, guiding adjustments in plans, adaptation of materials, and improvements in radio programme production.

These dashboards enable us to make evidence-based decisions, while generating frontline data that allows the Ministry to inform its planning and thinking for what to do next. Again, if the whole education community took a more joined-up approach across the country, data could be shared from every region to gain a national picture.

Like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the impact of COVID-19 so far has thankfully not created a health crisis in Uganda; but it is an urgent and deepening crisis of learning for its children. Next year’s schooling will be very different to last year’s.

In Uganda, and internationally, it’s critical that all education partners focus efforts on strengthening the education system to adapt, respond, and learn from the new and evolving realities for all children.

To learn more about the SESIL programme, visit https://medium.com/sesil-news-impact-stream

Charlie Gordon, Technical team leader, SESIL, and education adviser, Cambridge Education

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