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Assessing the quality of early learning systems in Liberia and what might work to improve them

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Georgina Rawle

The Early Learning Partnership (ELP) is a multi-donor trust fund managed by the World Bank which works with countries to improve early learning opportunities and outcomes for young children, through both research and operational support. ELP aims to provide policymakers with actionable information to help guide the delivery of quality, equitable early learning at scale, and to build the international evidence base in the emerging field of systems research in early childhood education.

We provided a comprehensive system diagnostic of early learning in Liberia, which examined:

  • what children were learning;
  • how they were being taught;
  •  how this teaching was being supported through training and management;
  • how classrooms were equipped;
  • how parents engaged with the school; and
  • how the school was supported by the government.

Our diagnostic report was used to inform the second phase of the ELP programme, which piloted an intervention to address the two main challenges that we identified which were (i) the high prevalence of over-age children in early learning classes; and (ii) low levels of teacher training in child-centred pedagogies.

The pilot intervention was severely interrupted by COVID-19 but despite the limited dosage there were some indications of initial success in the uptake of parts of the intervention.

The challenge

Although early childhood education (ECE) is universally considered critical for human development, the challenges of quality provision in low- and middle-income countries are immense. In Liberia, previous studies on early learning found a high prevalence of over-age enrolment and rote-based instruction.

The Ministry of Education in Liberia has been active in developing and promoting an early learning curriculum based on child-centred pedagogies and encouraging families to enrol their young children into preschool. However, there is little information available on the state of early learning in Liberia without which effective intervention is impossible.

Our approach

Using an analytic framework developed by the World Bank and Lantt Pritchet, our diagnostic evaluated the ‘accountability relationships’ between the government, schools, teachers, and parents. Our focus was on whether the ECE system in Liberia was aligned to promote quality, age-appropriate teaching and positive levels of enrolment, as these had been prioritised by the Ministry of Education.

Our fieldwork for the diagnostic exercise was conducted across eight counties in Liberia, including five of the most deprived. It consisted of 490 student assessments, 478 interviews with parents of sampled children, 53 principal interviews, 50 classroom observations and teacher interviews, five interviews with MoE officials, three interviews with District Education Officers (DEOs), and an interview with representatives from the President’s office.

In response to the diagnostic, a pilot intervention was delivered in two counties that provided workshop and workplace-based training for ECE teachers on child-centred pedagogies. Schools receiving this intervention were also encouraged to promote children of primary school age from ECE to primary school, in line with national legislation.

We evaluated the pilot intervention using a randomised control trial that included 27 treatment schools and 27 control schools. Our respondents were 787 children, 82 teachers and 54 principals who were surveyed at both baseline (November 2019) and endline (February 2021).

Outcomes and wider impacts

Our diagnostic exercise offered insight into children’s learning levels, the quality of education provision within classrooms, the support provided to teachers and principals, involvement of parents, and the current costs of provision. We were also able to provide recommendations on what it would cost to provide education of a higher standard, as well as the elements of the accountability relationships within the ECE system that would most benefit from support.

Our evaluation of the pilot intervention found that despite the much-reduced dosage caused by school closure in response to COVID-19, the intervention increased the uptake of the national ECE curriculum and increased the proportion of otherwise over-age children promoted from ECE to primary school. Anticipated impacts on teachers’ use of child-centred pedagogy and on learning outcomes for ECE children were not detected but we cannot draw conclusions about the efficacy of the intervention from this because of the COVID-19 disruption.

The evaluation was conducted with support from Ajala Tayo Stephen, Aleesha Taylor, Andrej Kveder, Brian Law, Corinna Bordewieck, Ekundyao Arogundade, Emily Vargas Baron, Femi Adegoke, Gloria Olisenekwu, Ian MacAuslan, Mark Minford, Martina Garcia Aisa, Nardos Tesfay, Rachel Outhred (Oxford MeasurEd), Thomas Davis (Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geoinformation Services), Vanika Grover, Yvonne Capeheart Weah (We-Care Liberia).