This is a critical time for education. A cost-of-living crisis, including rising food and energy prices and the war in Ukraine are putting pressure on policymakers to cut education budgets. It is tempting because economic dividends from education only materialize decades later and students cannot exert political pressure by voting.
Yet as education advisors with the governments of Sierra Leone and Rwanda, we have seen first-hand how governments are prioritizing education funding. To some, these countries may seem like unlikely champions of education. Both faced cataclysmic violence in the 1990s and remain among the poorest in the world. But they are working hard to change that – and investing in education is a central pillar of their economic strategies.
In Sierra Leone, the present government won the 2018 presidential election on a promise of free quality school education. It now commits more than 20 percent of its budget to education. It has increased enrollment by over 30 percent, introduced pre-primary education, achieved gender parity, improved foundational learning outcomes and seen a record number of students graduating at all levels of the education system.
Rwanda now has near-universal access to primary education with net enrollment rates of 98 percent. It has achieved gender parity in primary enrollment and built systems to measure and improve learning outcomes, strengthened learning assessments, delivered teacher training, and emphasized the need for more technical and vocational education and training.
Access: focus on national priorities
In Rwanda, nearly all children begin primary education, but only one in 10 enter tertiary education. As a result, the focus is on keeping children in school to complete at least the first 12 years of education. In this context, Rwanda has used the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI) as a framework to prioritize actions and interventions. It is putting in place ambitious interventions to increase the years a Rwandan child will spend in school.
Sierra Leone’s government also focuses on the HCI across education, health and agriculture. Starting with the president, the government holds itself accountable by aligning the building blocks for national development with international indicators.
Quality: measure your learning
Compared to access, measuring and explaining improvement in the quality of education is complex. There are multiple inputs and it is difficult to establish a linear effect on learning outcomes.
Two HCI indicators can help governments measure returns on their education investments: “Harmonized Test Scores” and “Learning-Adjusted Years of School.” Both Sierra Leone and Rwanda scored the lowest against these HCI indicators. Both countries have invested heavily in reconfiguring their education systems.
Rwanda has been using a variety of learning assessments, including Learning Achievement in Rwandan Schools (LARS) as well as international assessments such as Early Grade Assessments (EGRA/EGMA). The LARS is conducted every two years, but thanks to the digitization of its assessment tool in 2020, is expected to be carried out more frequently.
Sierra Leone has established a ministerial learning assessment unit and is planning regular nationwide assessments. The 2021 EGRA/EGMA study showed that the government’s investments in education have raised Sierra Leone’s performance from the very bottom to above average in seven years.
Both countries are currently adjusting their curriculum in areas where students struggle, improving teacher training and developing remedial learning and catch-up programmes for students falling behind.
Accelerating progress: using innovation and technology to support access and quality
Technology and innovation can, if deployed well, help accelerate progress in education at scale and at low cost per student. Together they can help light the way toward a world-class education system for every child, an objective the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has explored in recent policy work.
In Sierra Leone, the government launched the Education Innovation Challenge where service providers trial new approaches to supporting schools. In September, the approach will be scaled to more than 100,000 primary school students through a partnership with the Education Outcomes Fund.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, both countries offered free lessons through radio, television, phones and online. Looking ahead, both aim to equip 100 percent of schools with power and internet. In Sierra Leone the initial target is 1,000 schools through the GIGA Connect project, and in Rwanda the target is to equip all schools with smart classrooms by 2023.
Building political support
Education champions need to show colleagues in government how education helps achieve goals across policy areas. As Sierra Leone’s Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education David Moinina Sengeh says: “Quality public education is the closest thing we have to a universally applicable silver bullet to solve our planet’s most intractable challenges.”
Indeed, education drives up personal incomes and contributes strongly to reducing global emissions, gender inequality, child and maternal mortality, and even crime rates. As a result, ministers of finance, environment, gender, health, and justice are strong potential allies for securing investment.
Education ministers must especially convey this message to those who hold the purse strings. Only with predictable and sustainable financing from the national treasury will education achieve its promise of propelling broad-based economic development and social progress.
Winning political allies means adopting a scorecard such as the HCI where allies can point to tangible differences in expanding access, improving learning outcomes and fuelling national development, so they can claim credit.
By supporting clearly structured education investments, these allies can claim membership of an exclusive group of policymakers who think about their country's welfare from a generational perspective. They can become nation builders.