With schools closed due to COVID-19, Ethiopia grapples with providing distance education to children

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

By Adele Khodr, UNICEF Representative to Ethiopia
Sisay Yilma, a father of six, found it difficult to manage his children’s time when six of them started staying home every day.
25 June 2020

When schools across Ethiopia closed on 16 March 2020, authorities found themselves in an unprecedented situation. The problem was not just that some 26 million children were unable to attend school. The novel nature and scale of the crisis meant that contingency plans needed to be put in place to limit the inevitable disruption in children’s learning.

Devising and coordinating a response has been an immense challenge for the government and its partners alike. The problem is not simply one of inadequate infrastructure, limited media reach, and scarce resources - though these are considerable. The decentralized nature of schooling in Ethiopia means that responding to the crisis, particularly at the primary school level, and developing distance education programmes is the responsibility of individual regional education bureaus. Although the Federal Ministry of Education (MOE), which oversees the provision of secondary education, has its own TV channel and an MOE-TV Education Programme, this was designed to be used in classroom settings with the help of a teacher - not as a tool for self-learning at home. At the primary level, initiatives have been developed locally by regional education bureaus, with varying degrees of success.

Along with Save the Children and other partners, UNICEF is providing technical and financial support to both the MoE and nine regional education bureaus to develop and broadcast radio and TV content for primary and secondary classes. UNICEF’s financial support is currently targeting an estimated 5.1 million primary and secondary school children. The support also includes helping the MoE to put in place clear guidelines and standards for the radio and TV education programmes.  

In addition, with other partners, UNICEF plans to support education authorities in the regions to reach six million children with home-based distance education.

The type of assistance varies between regions. In Gambella, for instance, UNICEF has provided technical support in training 37 radio script writers to develop radio learning materials. The Addis Ababa Education Bureau, by contrast, is relatively far ahead and already broadcasts home-based distance education for children using multiple channels that include platforms like Telegram, Facebook and Youtube. In other regions, UNICEF has mapped out lessons and languages common across regions and facilitated cross-regional sharing of resources for broadcasting. 

But even the best distance learning programme may not be an adequate solution for every child. Indeed, for some it will be no solution at all: while 42 per cent and 61 per cent of urban households have access to radio and TV channels respectively, the proportion among rural households is as low as 29 per cent and 11 per cent.[1] Now that all but the Afar Regional Education Bureau have their own radio and/or TV education channels, it is critical that access is expanded accordingly. To this end, with funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), UNICEF is procuring more than 20,000 solar-powered radios with USB capability to upload lessons for vulnerable learners, including internally displaced children and refugees. Save the Children plans to provide direct support to Amhara and Tigray in order to boost the radio broadcasting coverage.

ICT infrastructure is not the only resource constraint. Few education bureaus have experience in scriptwriting and production for radio broadcasting, so skills in some places needed to be built from scratch. Meanwhile, in the multilingual SNNP Region, there are specific challenges: delivering radio lessons for children in grades one to four in the 32 mother tongues used for teaching and learning in the region has not yet been possible due to limited radio stations and resource constraints. And even in places where distance learning is available and accessible, many are simply not aware of its existence. A key priority should be raising awareness among families and children of the need to attend radio and TV education programmes and making sure that broadcasting schedules are clearly and widely communicated, a shortfall that education authorities are working to address.

Monitoring is another challenge. As it stands, there are no formal systems in place for assessing class attendance. The World Bank and DFID are planning to conduct household phone surveys, which will include questions on children’s learning. The results can be triangulated with findings from regional level monitoring by education authorities to paint a complete picture of attendance.

Yedidiya and Semretemedhin, attending classes via Radio which is one of the government’s initiative to support studying at home
Yedidiya and Semretemedhin, attending classes via Radio which is one of the government’s initiative to support studying at home.

With so many distance learning programmes planned or underway, assessing their quality and impact on learning will be necessary to improve their effectiveness over time. For this, regional authorities should put in place monitoring and evaluation systems which take into account feedback from stakeholders including parents and children themselves. To complement this, UNICEF is working with the MOE to develop guidelines for assessing the effectiveness of distance education programmes.

Online education cannot be a substitute for face-to-face learning in bricks and mortar classrooms. At home, electricity can be infrequent and internet connection is often patchy. A 30-minute TV programme cannot replace a full lesson in a school setting. Moreover, schools provide children a host of additional benefits such as meals, recreational programmes, co-curricular activities, pedagogical support by teachers, and emotional and social connections with other children.

UNICEF and partners are therefore working closely with the MOE to adapt the global guidance for reopening schools, which is unlikely to be before the new school year in September. But it is important to prepare now, not least because one of the lessons learned from the Ebola pandemic in West Africa in 2013 is that many vulnerable children fail to return to school once they reopen. Girls especially face greater risks of child marriage, even as school closures take them away from the support system of teachers, peers, gender clubs, and other protective services. Data on reported cases of child marriage is presently being collected and analyzed but, suffice to say, girls married during the current closure have limited chances of ever returning to schools when they reopen. In a country like Ethiopia where rates of child marriage are already high, this will be even more pronounced.

But there are other factors too. Students may drop out because of the prolonged absence, uncertainty around reopening plans, or a lack of psychosocial support. There will need to be clear back-to-school advocacy, as well as catch-up classes and other measures to incentivize children to return if Ethiopia is to avoid a sudden reversal of years of gains in school enrollments.

In the longer-term, there must be an effort to ensure progress is made in strengthening distance learning so that Ethiopia can have a more flexible, resilient and responsive education system. In future, there should be greater investments in radio, television and online education, for example, to enable students to access coursework from home. This is important not only so that Ethiopia is better prepared in the event of similar disruptions, but also because mixed approaches to learning - so-called “blended learning” - can greatly benefit school children in normal times, too.

Monitoring school enrolment and attendance, especially of the most vulnerable students, will be vital once schools re-open, as will addressing long-standing barriers to education for the most excluded children. The MoE, with UNICEF support, is planning to conduct an out-of-school study to understand which children continue to be most at risk of dropping out and being excluded from the education system. Strategies to address barriers to inclusion, coupled with allocation of adequate resources, will be key to ensuring that when schools re-open, every child will return to school and continue with his or her learning.

[1]Ethiopia Demographic and Health Survey, 2016