Quality education: Reflecting on six years of sustainable transformation of professional practices

15 May 2024


©UNESCO/Emily Pinna

For every child to leave primary school with a basic level of competency, UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO Dakar) launched an Education Quality Management Support Program in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2018. This innovative approach involves all levels of the education system, with stakeholders themselves identifying the strengths and weaknesses of their professional practices and being guided towards sustainable transformation.

The ambition for every student to complete primary school with the ability to read, write, and count remains unfulfilled in sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, 85 per cent of children on the continent are unable to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10. Despite the significant increase in enrolment since the early 2000s, there has unfortunately not been a corresponding improvement in academic levels, despite governmental efforts to provide quality basic education.

Faced with the urgent need to improve educational action, IIEP implemented a Support for Education Quality Management programme in sub-Saharan Africa in 2018, with the support of the French Development Agency (AFD). This programme examines the educational realities country by country, identifying the root causes of students’ poor performance at all levels of the education system. Operating in 12 African countries, this innovative programme has worked to develop concrete solutions aimed at the sustainable transformation of professional practices. The diagnostic phases, formulation of action plans, and experimentation with solutions have all been conducted hand-in-hand with those who are involved in education on a daily basis.

It’s a true methodology that has been created, one that refuses to offer solutions based on simple recommendations disconnected from the contexts and experiences of local actors. Instead, the solutions have been built from within, with those who understand the real constraints.

- Patrick Nkengne, Head of the Support for Education Quality Management Programme at IIEP Dakar

Awareness of challenges... and opportunities

Central to this approach is a crucial initial diagnostic phase, which six countries in the region have benefited from (Burkina Faso, Burundi, Madagascar, Niger, Senegal, and Togo). This hands-on immersion was led by education stakeholders themselves – officials from all levels of the national education system, designated by local authorities, working with the guidance of international education quality experts. They spent several weeks observing in a dozen primary schools in their respective countries, as well as in decentralized services such as academy inspections and within the central administration of their supervising ministry.

Focus on three key educational issues common to many countries

  1. Lack of use of assessment data: In all supported countries, quantitative and qualitative data collected through learning assessments are generally not analysed, even though they could be useful for designing education policies tailored to local realities. The underutilization of this data is a concrete problem that can be addressed.
  2. Lack of pedagogical support: Teachers suffer from insufficient support from their superiors. Inspectors who oversee them, too few in number and naturally infrequent in their classroom visits, lament this situation that is attributed, among other causes, to excessive workloads.
  3. Lack of recognition of local initiatives: Local innovations are often poorly identified and promoted within the system. Despite emerging from grassroots needs, they are relevant responses to the challenges faced by stakeholders.

This diagnostic analysis represents a colossal effort to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities specific to each country’s education system. Between each immersion period, exchange sessions were planned to compare, validate, and share observations with dozens of other schools from various inspections. Only once all these steps were completed were the education-related issues formally identified. The programme’s contribution has been to understand why countries struggle to address these issues and to reveal levers from which solutions can be built. But an in-depth analysis of educational practices only makes sense if it triggers lasting change. Based on the diagnosis conducted and the obstacles encountered, improvement proposals were formulated. With the support of IIEP, three of these avenues were then tested by education system stakeholders in the form of interventions in a restricted environment.

First experiment: Leveraging data for educational quality insights

In Niger, where student performance is concerning, immersion teams realized that no use was being made of the collected school data such as statistics, assessment results, and various reports, despite their potential to provide a precise picture of difficulties, which could then be highly useful for developing pedagogical strategies tailored to the needs. An experiment was thus conducted in two pilot communities where school data was analysed to identify priority challenges during education dialogue days called ‘Shawara Karatu’. During these meetings, various stakeholders were brought together at the local level, from inspectors, school principals, and assessment officers, to municipal officials, local leaders, associations, and village or religious leaders. During the experiment, these stakeholders identified the most challenged schools in their community and jointly defined short-term, actionable steps to improve educational provision. Two to three times a year, a new meeting is organized to evaluate the effectiveness of implemented changes and to propose new ones.aux.

With ‘Shawara Karatu’ days, we identified all the struggling schools, and within these schools, all the struggling classes, especially in core subjects. Sharing with the community is important so they know what’s happening at each school. Once the results are shared, everyone can take action.

- Souleymane Aliou, Primary Education Inspector of N’dounga, Niger

Improvements are already visible, particularly with the revision and streamlining of the data transmission form, aimed at minimizing errors during dissemination. A thorough reflection is also underway regarding the causes of academic failure within the community, focusing on the declining performance of Grade 5 students, especially girls. These efforts demonstrate the catalytic effect of Shawara Karatu days on stakeholders’ commitment to improving the local education system.

Second experiment: Student group work – small innovation, big potential

In the face of challenges, educational actors often demonstrate resilience and creativity. Some teachers come up with solutions that could be used as leverage to improve the quality of education across the entire territory. This is the case in Niger, where a locally successful practice was discovered during immersion periods in the local education system: supervised microteaching workshops. These are small working groups where a willing and capable student leads their peers around topics into which the teacher wishes to delve deeper. It’s a concrete idea that provides students with more learning time, while motivating them through the ‘peer effect’. An experimentation was thus envisioned to promote this local innovation so that it could potentially be integrated into the entire Nigerien education system. To do this, two teacher training colleges in Niger embraced the practice and adapted it to the Grade 3 reading learning process, transforming it into a method for future teachers that could, if necessary, be used throughout the country under the best possible conditions. 

The supervised micro-teaching workshops are a solution to teachers’ difficulties as they promote independent work and collaboration among students. It’s also useful for a teacher who finds themselves with very diverse profiles within the same class and can thus divide the students into small working groups.

- Idrissa Moussa, Director of Studies at the Teacher Training College of Niamey, Niger

Thanks to the IIEP programme, the Nigerien authorities have become aware of the existence of this promising educational practice that excites students. This initiative has now received official validation, and there is ongoing reflection on its future expansion.

Third experiment: Better teacher support 

Pedagogical support has an enormous role to play in strengthening students’ learning outcomes. But the diagnostic periods in the Senegalese school system revealed a lack of this support for teachers. At the root of the problem is the approach of inspectors, which is deemed too directive while paying little attention to the needs of their school colleagues.

Currently in Senegal, there are two teacher support mechanisms. Either the inspector visits a school, which is rare because they are overloaded with work, or they convene several teachers within a pedagogical animation cell to address specific themes. In both cases, these mechanisms have a limited impact on improving teachers’ skills.

- Émilie Martin, Educational Policy Analyst at IIEP Dakar

To find solutions to this issue, volunteer inspectors and school principals from Thiès in the west of the country were invited to engage in self-analysis exercises of their professional practice. They filmed themselves at work, and the footage was viewed and analysed among peers. This exercise enabled these supervisors to question themselves, to consider their own evolution in practices regarding teachers, to exchange advice, and to test solutions in their workplaces. The self-analysis of practices has already had a significant impact on the participants in the experimentation, who have revised their way of supervising and supporting teachers.

Shaping the school of tomorrow

Currently, the teams at IIEP Dakar and the national institutes for education personnel training in Burundi, Senegal, and Togo are dedicated to developing training modules on quality management for education sector supervisory staff. The aim is to equip them with the skills to independently identify the real challenges on the ground. Meanwhile, the experiments have each been followed by reflections on possible options for expansion across the entire local education system, including the establishment of monitoring committees and making recommendations to policymakers. Finally, to ensure that this expertise benefits the greatest number of people, the programme’s major successes will be shared with other countries in the region.