And unfortunately, a majority of children in GPE partner countries are not acquiring these building blocks.
As of 2022, the proportion of children in low- and middle-income countries who were considered “learning poor” (meaning they could not read and understand a basic text by age 10) had risen to 70%, a figure exacerbated by the school closures spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is why GPE, along with nearly 50 organizations and countries, endorsed the Commitment to Action on Foundational Learning – 1 of 7 global initiatives launched at the UN Secretary-General’s Transforming Education Summit. This commitment recognizes that foundational learning provides the essential building blocks for all other learning, knowledge and higher-order skills.
A longstanding commitment
GPE’s dedicated support to improving foundational learning is longstanding. During the calendar year 2022, all GPE implementation grants included a focus on improving learning, with a cumulative investment of US$336.47 million. 33 out of these 82 grants supported foundational learning specifically.
The strategies and interventions supported by these grants are as diverse as our partner countries themselves.
For example, in Benin, low levels of learning in the early grades led the country to launch a curriculum reform to improve foundational learning, supported by GPE and the World Bank. For the period 2019–23, GPE support is targeting public and private primary schools across the country characterized by low levels of resources, with a focus on grades 1 and 2. Through this work, the national team has received training on explicit pedagogy and scaffolding methods to develop lessons plans, teacher guides, training modules and coaching systems.
In Kenya, GPE support bolsters work towards improving student competency in early grade mathematics and strengthening the country’s education management information system, as well as implementing a national learning assessment for primary education.
Beyond these investments at the country level, the GPE Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) supports solutions and global public goods in relation to foundational learning. For example, a global grant to the PAL Network has been supporting the common-scale assessment of early and foundational math learning across 11 partner countries.
In Nigeria, Zambia and Côte d’Ivoire, a KIX initiative implemented by MIT and the Abdul Latif Jamil Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is supporting research on scaling up the teaching at the right level methodology.
Importantly, this support is bearing fruit. In Lesotho, the Ministry of Education and Training acted on data from a KIX project which showed that only 17% of children in Grade 3 had achieved the expected reading skills, and that fewer than 10% had the expected numeracy skills. Consequently, the country is applying new models including teaching at the right level and structured pedagogy to ensure that children achieve proficiency in foundational literacy and numeracy. At the end of 2022, the ministry planned to further incorporate project findings into a comprehensive national strategy for learning continuity.
New opportunities to accelerate progress
Under the GPE 2025 approach, partner countries engage in an inclusive process of dialogue in order to identify a priority reform to transform their education systems. These are codified in partnership compacts, which articulate how the country intends to work with others to advance the identified reform.
During 2022, 13 countries finalized or completed partnership compacts. Not surprisingly, 12 out of 13 of these compacts prioritized improvements in learning outcomes. And in some countries, there is an explicit focus on foundational learning.
For example, Sierra Leone has prioritized “Foundations of Learning for All,” aiming to ensure that all students acquire foundational skills (i.e., reading fluently with comprehension, achieving fundamental mathematics competencies and developing resilient socio-emotional skills) by class 4. As an additional demonstration of this commitment, the country also convened the first-ever Foundational Learning Exchange in Freetown in February, resulting in a Ministerial declaration on advancing foundational learning across 8 participating African countries.
The partnership compact of Zanzibar (Tanzania) focuses on ‘Improved foundational skills at the basic education level,’ including the roll-out of the competence-based curriculum and teacher management and development in support of improved outcomes in reading, writing, arithmetic and creativity in the early grades.