By Hamza Sarfraz, Policy Researcher and Zain ul Abidin, Programme Specialist at Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi
Several months after it first hit globally, governments and experts across the world have now finally begun to register the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. Education for children has emerged as a major casualty, particularly in the Global South where many countries were already struggling with learning crises. The school closures, limited access to online learning, and already constrained education systems have coalesced together to bring about an adverse situation. The potential learning losses suffered by children, both temporally and economically, are significant.
The search is on to find an immediate solution for such an unprecedented crisis. Considering the time and resource constraints, a good solution has to fulfill a certain set of criteria. Essentially, it has to be 1) low-cost, 2) scalable, 3) easily available, 4) targeted specifically at the issue of learning losses, and 5) workable. In this regard, accelerated learning has been identified as potentially effective solution to learning losses. Pakistan has a large-scale workable model of accelerated learning underway that covers all bases already, which this blog describes.
As context, Pakistan had already been experiencing a deeply-entrenched learning crisis before the onset of COVID-19. Data from 2019 shows that 75% of children in Pakistan cannot read and understand a simple text by age 10. Twenty-four million children are out-of-school, equivalent to nearly 47% of those aged 5-16 years, among these 24 million children, 5.6 million had dropped out from school. This is particularly pertinent as the same solutions offered to bring these children back up-to-speed with their age-appropriate learning levels when re-enrolling them in school can be studied and modified for those now forced out of schools during the COVID-19 crisis. The Advancing Action for Adolescent Girls project (A3G) this blog describes addresses precisely this issue by providing accelerated learning to over 20,000 girls in Pakistan who have either dropped-out or, in some cases, not attended school before.
The A3G project supports flexible schooling options for second chance education for vulnerable and disadvantaged adolescent girls (aged 9-19) in rural areas in the marginalized Southern region of the province of Punjab, Pakistan. The girls identified have either never enrolled in school or have dropped out in the past 24 months. For girls never enrolled in schools, the project offers a 90-day course called “Chalo Parho Barho”, roughly translated to “Let us read and grow”, which supplies bursts of remedial learning in literacy and numeracy domains. For girls who dropped out of school in the past two years or less, the program provides opportunities for finishing primary and middle grades. There is also a pilot underway with a small group for students who are finishing their secondary school.
Learning in the program is not envisioned as in a formal setting. Instead, it is tailored according to the learning level of each individual child, as recommended in the 2020 GEM Report as the correct approach for inclusion. Once a child comes to the learning center, a one-on-one, facilitated diagnostic assessment is undertaken with the student which determines her learning level. This entire process is based on a ‘teaching at the right level’ (TaRL) approach. Once the learning level of the student is determined, the child is assigned a particular strand to continue his/her learning. The expected student learning outcomes (SLOs) are selected from Pakistan’s National Curriculum for each of the strands. These SLOs are then aligned with the textbooks and selected topics are taught to the students. One diagnostic assessment is taken in the 1st week of enrollment, and one summative assessment is taken at the end of each strand. All students appear in the provincial PEC Examination too. Formative assessments are a component of day-to-day teaching.
This specifically designed curriculum covers an extensive syllabus in a short-period of time and thus prepares children to appear in mainstream education assessments. Not only is this effective, it is also scalable thanks to being low-cost, much less than the average amount spent per child in a government school over the same time period. The program works with capable teachers from within the communities, trains them, provides them with resources, and then encourages them to teach these designed accelerated learning programs. So far, the project has been a success in mainstreaming more than 8000 girls, with a next cohort already preparing for their exams. These girls appeared in the official board examinations for primary and middle grades (administered by the government) and as many as 92% of them cleared the exams. This highlights its efficacy in helping children catch up on learning losses.
Furthermore, the accelerated learning program is already in the process of adapting to distance-learning approaches. Right after COVID-19 pandemic was recognized in Pakistan and a lockdown policy announced, key content from the syllabus was digitized and steps are now being taken to explore low-tech solutions such as radio/tv.
Furthermore, the program ensures that young girls do not face additional inequity and suffer further stress and anxiety during the pandemic. Girls are taught core life-skills through short animated films and mobile cinema, which can create a positive change in their attitudes and mental resilience. This teaches strong values of leadership, communication, health & hygiene and critical thinking ability.
In a post-pandemic world, a lot of children are at risk of being left behind their global peers due to time away from school. The challenge is to provide these children learning solutions that can quickly make-up for the gaps that may emerge, and to do it within the limited resources available. Given the large-scale and successful implementation over a wide region and with a large number of children, A3G provides governments in the Global South with a potential blue-print on how they can meet their needs.