Education Think Pieces

Stimulating debate around significant educational challenges facing the region


UNICEF has commissioned 10 Think Pieces by leading researchers and practitioners to stimulate debate around significant educational challenges facing the Eastern and Southern Africa region; a region where most children attend school, but many are not learning the basics.

While the pieces are rooted in evidence, they are not research papers or evidence briefs, nor do they represent UNICEF policy. Rather, they are engaging pieces that aim to inspire fresh thinking to improve learning for all.

To see the Think Pieces, scroll below or skip directly to:

1. Girls’ education
2. Pre-primary education
3. Parents and caregivers
4. Teacher performance
5. Curriculum reform
6. Accountability and the delivery approach
7. Disability inclusion
8. School improvement
9. Learner centered education
10. Education in emergencies

Or see the book version of the 10-piece series.

1. Girls’ education

Girls’ education is improving, but not for all girls – how can we accelerate change?

Girls attending school in western Uganda.

Throughout the region, there are countless groups of children who experience significant constraint on their capability to learn. These include children with disabilities, children from an ethnic minority, children displaced by emergency or conflict and children living in extreme rural and/ or impoverished conditions.

While both boys and girls make up these excluded groups, the constraints that are experienced – be it due to extreme poverty, displacement or disability – are compounded and multiplied when they are experienced by girls.

Watch the presentation on the Girls’ Education Think Piece by Dr Sharon Tao

2. Pre-primary education

Quality and equitable access grounded in local knowledge: Bringing pre-primary education to scale

Pre-school children smile at the UNICEF-supported Consol Homes Orphan Care near Lilongwe, Malawi.

A great deal of evidence demonstrates the significant effects that quality pre-primary education can have on a child’s cognitive, social and emotional development, growth, school readiness and future economic potential.

However, only 42 per cent of children in sub-Saharan Africa participate in any organized pre-primary education before the typical enrolment age for grade one. Such education is often only available to wealthier children, and is not of consistent quality, nor does it incorporate the local knowledge of learning processes that pre-school children should be exposed to before commencement of formal schooling. 

Watch the presentation on the Pre-Primary Education Think Piece by Elizabeth Spier, Paul Oburu and Hirokazu Yoshikawa

3. Parents and caregivers

Leveraging the enthusiasm of parents and caregivers for lifewide learning

A mother and her child, attend a nutrition session where she was sensitised on the right foods to feed her child and the preparation.

Parents and caregivers in every region of the globe enthusiastically support their children’s education, but constraints related to poverty, mobility, doubts about school value or school safety, and myriad other factors can act to limit their positive engagement on a day-today basis.

While enthusiasm for schooling fuelled the incredible increase in primary school enrolment over the past 25 years, more recent priorities highlight not just schooling, but learning.

Watch the presentation on the Parents and Caregivers Think Piece by Amy Jo Dowd, Lauren Pisani, Caroline Dusabe and Holly-Jane Howell

4. Teacher performance

Putting the spotlight on teacher performance

While her teacher watches, a young girl child writes on a blackboard in a class in a newly designed Child Friendly School that allows lots of natural light, airflow, as well as child friendly design to encourage maximum participation from children in a rural area in Rusizi District in Rwanda.

Despite the significant investments made by governments in the region, supported by development partners, into improving the performance of teachers, evidence that these investments have been successful is sparse.

Indeed, the evidence points in the opposite direction and suggests that there is a crisis in both teaching and learning across ESA countries.

Watch the presentation on the Teacher Performance Think Piece by John Martin

5. Curriculum reform

Busy going nowhere: Curriculum reform in Eastern and Southern Africa

12-year-old smiles as he sits at his desk in a classroom
UNICEF/UN0158313/Jean/Handicap International

Despite repeated attempts to reform the basic education curriculum in many countries in the region, learning levels have remained stubbornly low.

The general movement away from a traditional curriculum towards a ‘competency’ or ‘outcome’ based curriculum, has disappointingly done little, if anything, to improve learning outcomes. Changes to the curriculum have largely failed to change what goes on in classrooms: teaching remains largely didactic and pupils’ acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy, the foundational skills on which future learning is built, is woefully low.

Watch the presentation on the Curriculum Reform Think Piece by Roger Cunningham

6. Accountability and the delivery approach

The Delivery Approach: a panacea for accountability and system reform?

Tutor Amute Robinson is speaking to caregivers during the playing material production course at St. John Bosco primary teachers college, Lodonga.

UNICEF works with partners to strengthen education systems. Our tools are education sector analysis and plans, however, what can be lacking are frameworks in education to ensure these plans achieve results in the classroom. This Think Piece explores one approach: the delivery approach.

Watch the presentation on the Accountability Think Piece by Robin Todd

7. Disability inclusion

The challenge of inclusion for children with disabilities – experiences of implementation in Eastern and Southern Africa

A child reading Braille

Despite the fact that the right to education for all is enshrined in myriad national and international treaties, there are still challenges for children with disabilities with regard to accessing education, being socially included in education and experiencing quality education.

Given the deficiencies in education provision for children with disabilities, the financial and human resource constraints present in many countries, and the unclear discourse surrounding the definition and scope of inclusive education, this Think Piece will present a practical and pragmatic approach to increasing inclusion for both boys and girls with disabilities.

Watch the presentation on the Disability Inclusion Think Piece by Emma Sarton

8. School improvement

A story of matafors and smiles: reflections on school improvement

Children leave for home after attending a newly designed Child Friendly School

This eighth Think Piece is focused on school improvement. The speaker, Steve Baines, recognizes the need to establish a consensus on what school improvement means and how this affects the direction of effort and the allocation of resources. He argues that integrated approaches to school improvement will be adopted, as much through public pressure as through endogenous government actions and that these approaches will avoid repeating the ineffective efforts of the past.

Steve Baines is an education adviser with extensive experience of educational development at national, regional, and local levels in a wide range of countries. He has been concerned with issues of school quality and the conditions and incentives necessary to improve teachers, schools, and education management.

Watch the presentation on the School Improvement Think Piece by Steve Baines

9. Learner centred education

6-year-old pupils are enjoying an educational game

This Think Piece is focused on learner centred education (LCE). It questions the effectiveness of learner centred education, which is widely promoted as an example of ‘best practice’ pedagogy. The author notes that LCE has frequently been introduced without recognition of the material and cultural context leading to poor implementation. Instead, the case is made for a flexible set of principles (rather than prescriptions) that might be helpful in improving classroom practice everywhere.

Watch the presentation on the Learner Centred Education Think Piece by Professor Michele Schweisfurth

10. Education in emergencies

Navigating the humanitarian-development nexus in forced displacement contexts

A young girl smiles as she looks back at her teacher for help answering a question during class.

Contemporary humanitarian action and development approaches acknowledge that humanitarian and development actors need to collaborate side-by-side at global and country levels. For education, this means that education specialists, ministry authorities, donors, and policymakers, amongst others, need to find ways to improve coordination across their humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding activities as they consider both short- and long-term education responses.

This Think Piece aims to locate this humanitarian-development nexus within the education sector, and to identify opportunities for key partners to seize the momentum around this nexus, particularly with regard to learners, teachers, national education system actors affected by forced displacement.

Watch the presentation on the Education in Emergencies Think Piece by Dr. Mary Mendenhall