Need to forge strong partnership for improved quality of learning

14Aug 2017
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
Commentary
Need to forge strong partnership for improved quality of learning

WHY do we send our children to school? Do we do so to be able to say ‘my child is in school’? Or do we do so to enable our children to learn?

Across East Africa more and more children are going to school. Billions of shillings have been poured into the education sector, with budgets increasing in recent years. A range of programmes, policies and laws prioritise and promote education. 

Government leaders, civil society groups, media and development partners continually emphasise the importance of quality schooling. 

The key question then is: how have these efforts and pronouncements translated into demonstrable learning outcomes for children across the region? This article advocates for the need to forge strong partnership towards improving our children’s learning.

According to UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report for 2013/2014, there is no doubt that Tanzania has made impressive progress in universalizing primary education with respect to access and gender equity. Over the last decade especially, huge human, financial and material investments have been directed to the education sector. The Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Primary Education Development Programme (PEDP) initiatives have resulted in a dramatic expansion of access to primary education with millions more children attending school. In 2010, Tanzania received a Global Award for progress towards the Millenium Development Goals for education by registering a 95 percent enrolment rate in primary school.

On the back of the considerable expansion in enrolment and massive funding of the education sector, we still observe stagnant progress in our children’s learning of basic literacy skills. Such asituation may raise the major question around minds of many education stakeholders:  ‘have the investments in education sector translated commensurately into results? Does schooling lead to children acquiring the foundation skills they will need in their later learning and lives?

Learning is acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing, existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information. It does not happen all at once, but builds upon and is shaped by what we already know. 

To that end, learning may be viewed as a process, rather than a collection of factual and procedural knowledge. Learning produces changes in the organism and the changes produced are relatively permanent. It should be noted that in order for the above mentioned learning process to take place, there should be conditions for optimal learning such as: (a) a well-structured curriculum which focus more on foundational and individualized outcomes and less on long lists of standardized outcomes; (b) individualize student assessment through the use of student learning plans, portfolio, and other reflective and meta-cognitive assessment practices to engage learner in assessment process. The assessment need to address individual acquired skills and knowledge; and (c) teaching and learning process (pedagogy) should optimize use of constructivist techniques that balance the need for universal foundational learning with learning based on individual interest, strength, and self-determinism. A variety of participatory teaching and learning techniques should be incorporated in every teaching and learning experience and activity.

In pursuit of strategies to improve our children’s learning, a number of efforts and innovations by various education stakeholders have been put into practice. However, one of the significant innovations is the introduction of the ‘Uwezo annual assessments’, undertaken by Twaweza, a local non-government organization, and an education stakeholder. ‘Uwezo’ is a strategy to ensure that citizens are engaged in obtaining information on their children’s levels of learning and participate in taking measures to ensure effective strategies are put in place to improve our education system.in order to collect and share facts from the field on the status and levels of our children’s learning, in order for various other education stakeholder to use the findings to devise means to improve our education system.

Since 2010, Uwezo has conducted annual learning assessments of literacy and numeracy among children in three East African countries: Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. These assessments are by far the largest surveys of learning outcomes in Africa. 

So far three reports for 2011, 2012 and 2013 assessment have been made public. However, recently in various weeks of October, 2015, Uwezo conducted learning assessment in a number of districts, of which one of them was Handeni Town Council. The assessment in this council was on 16th and 17th October, 2015, after a two-days training of volunteers who collected data. During this assessment respondents in several schools, households and local government offices were visited and interviewed. 

During a two-days training of volunteers to undertake Uwezo assessment, Mussa Gunda, the Uwezo trainer, revealed that the Uwezo assessment tests are benchmarked at class two level to assess children in the following areas:

First, numeracy assessment: children are tested on their ability to respond correctly to each numeracy category including: number recognition, place value, additions, subtraction and multiplication;

Second, literacy assessment: children are tested to establish competence levels in Kiswahili and English literacy, children are tested on their ability to read letter names/ sounds and words, paragraph, story and respond to comprehensions. Children competence level is judged based on the highest level of reading that they reached. For example if a child cold read well the words but not able to read fluently a paragraph, that child is ranked at word level;

Third, bonus question: a bonus question is administered to all children to test their general knowledge of issues of daily practices. E.g. to state the meaning of the colours of the Tanzanian flag, identify government leaders or wild animals.

Moreover, Gunda pointed out that this assessment follows a number of steps including identification of Enumeration Areas (EA) in collaboration with National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), identification and training of volunteers, and collection of data or conducting actual assessment.

It should be noted that the Uwezo assessment findings enable policy makers as well as the citizenry: first, to become aware of actual levels of children’s literacy and numeracy and challenges hindering children learning; and secondly, to build on that awareness to stimulate dialogue, collaboration and grass root citizen action across East Africa that aims at improving our children’s learning.

During opening of the two-days training workshop for 60 Uwezo assessment volunteers, Handeni District Commissioner, Husna Rajab Msangi, praised Uwezo assessment as a precise scientific way to obtain reliable statistics, to support in proper planning and decision making on community development projects including education. Moreover, she called youth to devote their time to undertake such volunteer activities for supporting our community development, without focus on any monetary benefits. 

Preliminary findings from field visits in Handeni Town Council, revealed that there are a number of respondents who were not aware of the Uwezo assessment. However, many parents and teachers were happy to learn about the assessment and cooperated to provide responses accordingly.

Furthermore, findings reveal that majority of children in Handeni Town Council have low learning rates, even among the pupils in Standard Six who have remained with only one year to complete their primary education cycle. Most of pupils struggled to respond to Standard Two level numeracy and literacy tests. On literacy, some children were able to read Kiswahili and English texts but could not comprehend the message in the texts. However, the children’s comprehension levels in English were lower than comprehension levels in Kiswahili. While on numeracy, the results were low at all levels, especially on multiplication questions. 

At household level, it was revealed that most parents do not have adequate time to support their children’s learning; while at school level, issues of pupils and teachers’ absenteeism were revealed. Absenteeism has impact on pupils’ learning. Moreover, lack of teaching and learning materials especially for early grades also affects teaching and learning process.

At school levels, there was also an issue of lack of infrastructure, especially classrooms for pre-primary pupils, resulting into congestions in classrooms. For example at Mshikamano Primary School, there are about 126 pre-primary pupils congested into only 2 rooms, while according to Education and Training Policy, a pre-primary classroom should not have more than 25 pupils. In this case, this school need about 5 classrooms for pre-primary pupils to have space to learn comfortably. It should be noted that congestion has adverse effect on learning for early grades pupils.

Schools in Handeni Town Council are faced with a number of challenges which has resulted into difficulties in improving literacy levels in school. The identified challenges are: rampant truancy, poor participation of parents in schools’ decision making processes, poor collaboration between parents and teachers-most parents do not respond to teachers calls to discuss their children’s progress, poor working environment including lack of teaching and learning materials, poor economic status of parents-they are busy engaging in income generation activities rather than follow up on their children progress in school, just to mention a few. 

The major findings from this council, reveal that children are not learning. Children are not acquiring the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy consistent with the official curricular requirements in their countries. Indeed, the low learning levels suggest a continued crisis that demands immediate attention.

A number of statistics for Handeni Town Council including BRN assessments for 2014 examination results for Standard Seven and Form Four; and previous Uwezo assessments reveals that this Council has low attainment in terms of quality of education indicators including 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) skills and examination pass rates at Standard Seven and Form Four. This calls for multiple stakeholders’ participation in curbing this situation. We hope that this Uwezo Annual Assessment for 2015 will shed light on challenges facing students, teachers, parents and government leaders, in order to device mechanisms to involve all stakeholders at community and district levels to improve education at this district.