UNESCO GEM-R, ADEA launch the 2nd Spotlight Reports on Foundational Learning

The African Union and Zambia express commitment to establish a learning assessment framework for Africa

Photo: AFTRA

Zambia’s Minister of Education, Hon. Douglas Syakalima, launched the second Continental Spotlight Report and National Spotlight Report on foundational learning for Zambia on 7th May at the 2024 Conference of the African Federation of Teaching Regulatory Authorities in Lusaka, Zambia. The UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report (UNESCO-GEM-R), in partnership with the Association for Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), the African Union (AU), and the Ministry of Education in Zambia, collaborated in producing this year's reports titled Learning Counts. It is the second in the Spotlight Report series focusing on foundational numeracy in Africa. 

The 2024 Spotlight edition examined how countries align their national vision with curriculum development, textbook provision, teacher support and assessment practices that advance foundational learning. The findings from this edition show that teachers are struggling to effectively translate the curriculum into action in the classroom because they lack support to address their knowledge gaps and adverse classroom conditions. The report also highlighted the importance of coherent textbooks and teacher guides as key tools for delivering foundational learning.

During the launching session moderated by ADEA, Dr. Manos Antoninis, Director of the GEM Report, said:

‘Teachers are set up to fail if they do not have the right materials to teach what is expected of them. We would not send a doctor without a stethoscope, for instance. Why should we assume teachers can teach without relevant, up-to-date teaching materials in appropriate languages. Without these, we are effectively turning teachers into interpreters and translators on top of their day job.’ 

The African Union and the Government of Zambia committed to articulating a common assessment framework for learning in Africa, a key recommendation from the report and, therefore, demonstrating its value. According to Hon. Syakalima, Minister of Education in Zambia: 

Drawing on our experience in assessing foundational learning, Zambia is ready to contribute to the development of a common African approach for monitoring learning achievement, which is essential for attaining continental and global education goals outlined in CESA 16 – 25 and SDG-4.’

Equally, the Head of the Education Department at the African Union Commission, Ms. Sophia Ashipala, demonstrated the disposition of the AU to use the Leveraging Education Analysis and Results Network (LEARN) mechanism, working with member states to develop a common framework for learning assessment. According to her, 

‘The most recent issue on learning data and assessment was raised, and African ministers of education requested that member states recognize the lack of data to assess progress in learning as a key challenge and requested the Commission to implement guidance on utilizing learning assessment. We at the African Union are supporting the dialogue and working with partners through the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA) and together with ADEA and GEM-Report to make a common assessment framework for foundational learning and reality in Africa.’

Thanking Hon. Minister Syakalima for the launch, the ADEA Senior Program Officer, Shem Bodo recalled that foundational skills are essential for all subsequent learning and skills development that allow children to reach their full potential and contribute to sustainable development.  He further noted that, 

“New data and evidence – through the Spotlight Series – are key in driving more political commitments and action. The evidence presented in the two reports requires action by taking forward the report’s recommendations, leveraging the LEARN mechanism, and seeking common African solutions because our children are born to learn, and learning counts.”

The 2024 Spotlight Report

While presenting the 2024 report, Manos observed that the latest out-of-school and completion statisticssignpost the challenge that countries face every day. For every 100 children in Africa, 18 are out of school – twice the rate of the rest of the world. However, there is a sign of improvement, with completion rates growing steadily at almost one percentage point per year throughout the past 20 years. In addition, learning rates at the end of primary have improved faster in Africa than the rest of the world since 2011. However, the challenge remains notable, with at most one in five children attaining minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics at the end of primary school today. 

Having up-to-date and relevant textbooks is critical. Yet the report found that textbooks are often out-of-date and in the wrong language. Textbooks arrived eight years after the lower primary curriculum in Uganda and 9 to 12 years later in South Africa, for instance. In Niger and Mauritania, teachers are using textbooks and teacher guides that are a decade or more older than the new curriculum. Textbooks were not in the language of instruction for 80% of students in Zambia and in less than half of the classrooms visited for the report in Uganda. 

Textbooks and teacher guides may not be fully aligned with the curriculum.  In Niger, textbooks and teacher guides include statistics and probability, but the curriculum does not.

Assessments are sometimes found to depart from the curriculum. For example, Mauritania assessed Algebra, which is not part of the curriculum. South African classroom assessment also only covers two out of five learning domains.  

Teacher guides and lesson plans can help teachers follow curriculum objectives. However, results show that they are used inconsistently, which calls for a review of their design. The report noted that around three in five teachers in South Africa and Uganda and more than four in five in Mauritania and Zambia had a teacher guide, although shortages or delays in provision were noted.

Ongoing professional training is also important to improve teachers’ subject knowledge and refresh their qualifications, which the report shows technology is helping with. In Africa, 17% of countries require a bachelor's degree to teach, compared to 62% of countries globally, meanwhile teachers' qualifications are often lower than requirements. The report underscores the significance of training. Among the surveyed primary school teachers in the 14 countries in the 2019 Program for the Analysis of Educational Systems of CONFEMEN (PASEC), only 35% mastered basic procedures in mathematics. Differences in teacher subject knowledge account for more than one-third of the cross-country variation in student achievement. 

Education is dropping down the list of governments’ priorities despite there being an annual financing gap of USD 28 billion to achieve countries’ own targets of an 85% primary education completion rate by 2030. External financing is declining as a source of revenue for governments and is less likely to support foundational learning.   

The report recommends the following:

  1. Give all children a textbook – and all teachers a guide: Ensure that all children and teachers have teaching and learning materials that are research-based, aligned with the curriculum, and locally developed.
  2. Teach all children in their home language – and train teachers accordingly: Give all children the opportunity to first learn to read in a language they understand and all teachers the confidence to support them.
  3. Provide all children with a school meal: Give all children the minimum conditions to learn at school.

At the system level

  1. Make a clear plan to improve learning.
    1. Develop a common continental framework to monitoring learning outcomes. 
    2. Establish clear learning standards and align assessments to evaluate how well students meet them.
    3. Focus on developing basic skills early to support advanced cognitive abilities later.
  2. Develop teacher capacity: Deploy cost-effective trainings as means to ensure all teachers use classroom time effectively.
  3. Prepare instructional leaders: Restructure support mechanisms for teachers and schools.

At the continental level

  1. Learn from peers: Reinvigorate mechanisms allowing countries to share experiences on foundational literacy and numeracy.

At the international level

  1. Focus aid on institution building: Shift from projects to provision of public goods that support foundational learning.