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The Urgency to Support Measurable Learning Gains, Particularly for the Most Marginalised Girls

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By Ian Attfield, DFID Senior Education Adviser, Girls Education Challenge

It’s been a pleasure to see the PAL Network evolve and grow over the past decade, the strength of the network particularly evident at the 2019 Conference, jointly hosted by ASER Pakistan and ASER Nepal in Kathmandu, Nepal. PAL members conduct painstaking work to identify, at scale, what children actually learn and can do. Network members then use this data as a powerful rights, advocacy, and most importantly, action platform to improve learning. The UK has been a major supporter of the network and their members for a number of years. I was fortunate to support the work of Uwezo in East Africa up to 2016, which really helped to drive the importance of basic numeracy and literacy up the government’s agenda in Tanzania. Now it’s a pleasure to be involved with a new emerging PAL member ASER Nepal, that is scaling learning assessment approaches in Province Two of Nepal, through UKAID Direct’s support to Street Child.

While Nepal has demonstrated great progress in expanding education and equitable access since the civil war that ended around 2007, the country is still vulnerable to earthquakes, annual flooding and now the global COVID-19 pandemic.  Although Nepal has reported a low number of COVID-19 cases, the pandemic has had enormous socio-economic impacts due to the collapse of its tourism and remittance-worker driven economy. Schools in Nepal have been suspended since 18 March and a country-wide lockdown came into effect with all-but essential services closed down.

The Girls Education Challenge Marginalised No More project was set-up to support up to 7,500 of Nepal’s highly marginalised Musahar girls who, due to their low-caste, face complex, often interrelated barriers and experience limited or no access to education. The project aims to improve learning outcomes, focusing on functional literacy and numeracy to gain employment, and tackle obstacles the girls face, such as fears for safety and early marriage. rapid needs assessment found that all families had experienced a loss of income and 79% had received no support. The overwhelming response was that the food insecurity situation was critical, and in some cases Musahar families had been left off distribution lists owing to prejudice over their ‘Dalit’ caste status.

As the world is rocked by the seismic forces of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fundamentals of the pre-existing global ‘Learning Crisis’ remain. PAL Network members must continue to conduct household-based learning assessments to measure the learning of all children, as well as supporting action to improve learning, allowing children to learn at their own level and pace – particularly in contexts where classes are disrupted and basic needs such as food and protection, are not met.

The ASER Nepal 2019 survey, conducted in tandem with the government of Province Two, in the Southern part of Nepal bordering the Indian state of Bihar, identified familiar trends of:

  1. Very low learning levels, compared to Grade-level expectations, especially for girls;

2. Around 1 in 10 girls (roughly 10%) are out-of-school.

A unique advantage of citizen-led assessment surveys is the sheer scale of children tested, both in- and out-of-school. The data provides a more accurate picture of children’s learning, but also drills down into indicators of multiple and inherited disadvantage, such as gender, caste, poverty and disability differences. This creates a powerful basis for designing simple, level-based activities to improve learning, such as the award winning Teaching at the Right Level approach pioneered by Pratham, and spreading throughout Africa and beyond with Nobel Prize-winning support.

A priority to make PAL Network assessment even more impactful is the ability to map or align these to the emerging SDG-4 Learning indicators that track international progress. There are many other similar assessments, usually school based, for example the Early Grade Reading/Maths Assessments EGRA/EGMA.

To help make results comparable and map on UNESCO’s Global Proficiency Framework, the recent initiative taken by the PAL Network to develop the  ICAN (International Common Assessment of Numeracy) open-source tool is far-sighted. Metrics of learning have traditionally proven difficult to compare and track over time and geography.

Time will tell how quickly nations and local communities can ‘Build Back Better’ from the COVID-19 pandemic and deliver on the SDG 4 promise of inclusive and education quality for all, but I’m reassured to witness the growing scope and sophistication of PAL Network’s mission and operations to tackle what the World Bank has termed Learning Poverty. For girls such as these I met, pre-lockdown in Musahar communities near to the Nepal – India border, education remains the surest long-term route from discrimination, early marriage and inter-generational poverty.

©Ian Attfield 2020. Please note that opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DFID or other organisations mentioned.

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