Learning from the largest COVID-19 response in education: A summary of evaluation findings

Two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, GPE commissioned an independent evaluation of its support to partner countries. Read what the evaluation found and its recommendations.

June 10, 2024 by Lorenzo Newman, Learn More, and Elizaveta Rusakova, Learn More
4 minutes read
A language instructor in a learning center in the Rohingya refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Credit: UNICEF/UN0633790/Sujan
A language instructor in a learning center in the Rohingya refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Credit: UNICEF/UN0633790/Sujan

The COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented challenge for education systems worldwide, affecting teachers, students and policy makers.

With unparalleled speed, GPE mobilized over $500 million in grants for partner countries to face the learning crisis brought about by the pandemic.

In late 2022, the consortium of Triple Line, Learn More and Technopolis evaluated the relevance, coherence, efficiency and effectiveness of GPE’s COVID-19 response.

The evaluation built on a grant portfolio analysis across 66 partner countries and conducted case studies in Bangladesh, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, the Federated States of Micronesia, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Tonga.

What worked in COVID-19 grant roll-out and design

Supporting a crisis response on such a large scale was a new experience for all partners. GPE’s early support first came through planning grants to 87 countries (between $70,000 and $140,000 based on country size), which supported partner countries to prepare emergency response plans and develop initiatives to respond to learning gaps and the needs of the most vulnerable.

Following this, GPE provided grants to 66 partner countries to support mitigation and recovery efforts, with activities related to equity, learning, and system resilience and reopening.

Grant submissions and approval times were unprecedentedly quick thanks to rapid grant screening processes and the delegation of approval authority to the Secretariat rather than the GPE Board. The Secretariat allocated significant staff resources to ensure that grantees, especially from fragile and low-institutional capacity contexts, were supported throughout the process.

GPE required that grant applications be linked to response plans and endorsed by local education groups, which ensured interventions were coherent and country led. All grants were also required to include some activities for vulnerable groups, including girls.

Though grants couldn’t cover all needs, the requirement that grants address issues such as gender to a “sufficient degree” potentially led to addressing critical issues such as gender-based violence in some grants. Overall, GPE was able to balance these screening process requirements with the rapid deployment of grants.

Screening processes included checking the appropriateness of technology for learning solutions to some extent, but the evaluation found that low- and lower-income countries with limited access to TV and radio, and internet connectivity still piloted distance learning solutions dependent on these technologies.

Overall, low-income countries allocated around 80% of budget to no-tech and low-tech distance learning activities.

Flexibility was a main strength of the GPE grants, particularly considering the pandemic’s ever-changing effects. GPE also allowed for adjustments throughout grant implementation. Most adaptations included extensions of the implementation period and changes in timeline rather than in the scope or type of interventions supported.

It’s unclear whether there was no need for adaptations or whether countries hesitated to leverage the grant’s flexibility, but this raises the question of how to ensure support for future emergencies remains continuously relevant.

A student writing on the blackboard at EPC Galinha, Muanza, Sofala Province, in Mozambique. Credit: GPE/Carine Durand
A student writing on the blackboard at EPC Galinha, Muanza, Sofala Province, in Mozambique.
GPE/Carine Durand

Lessons from grant implementation

Most grants achieved their targets (reaching the number of people intended to be covered by activities) despite challenges including procurement issues, infrastructure limitations and difficulties in data collection.

Grants that had fewer, more specific objectives tended to be more successful. Grants with activities focused on hygiene in schools and psychological support were most likely to reach their targets.

Grants were also successful in supporting students’ return to school through back-to-school campaigns thanks to community-based and innovative approaches such as songs and contests.

Grants were less successful in reaching the targeted number of people in distance learning, teacher training and learning assessments during lockdowns, which are more complex activities in nature.

Distance learning initiatives reached over 77.7 million children, but the timing of lockdowns, poor internet connectivity and a lack of digital skills among students and teachers impeded implementation.

Teacher training activities (mostly short, online and reduced-scope) experienced challenges due to low digital literacy, connectivity issues and technical issues with learning management systems, which is consistent with global evidence. Similar challenges in implementing learning activities affected other non-GPE programming throughout the pandemic.

Building more resilient education systems

Interventions funded by GPE’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic helped create preconditions and capacity for more resilient education systems in the event of future crises.

Moreover, there's encouraging evidence of improved cooperation and coordination between national, regional and state-level stakeholders as well as between donors because of GPE support.

This was particularly noticeable when UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank collaborated to create educational content and address learning needs through a GPE $25 million global grant.

The evaluation uncovered useful evidence and provided recommendations for understanding what the last mile of delivery might look like in an education emergency response.

Recommendations for the future education emergency response based on the evidence from the evaluation findings.

  1. To ensure continued relevance of activities to changing contexts and based on emerging evidence, mechanisms should be introduced to encourage grant agents to leverage the flexibility of grant processes.
  2. Future emergency responses could adopt a similar screening process while creating clearer requirements for targeting vulnerable groups including girls.
  3. Formulate an approach based on growing evidence on distance learning, on how technology could be deployed for continued learning given countries varying technology capacity and aspirations for leveraging technology.
  4. Develop a “ready to roll” emergency plan and standard operating procedure.
  5. Future grant mechanisms (whether for emergencies or not) should encourage grant agents to track whether interventions are reaching beneficiaries.
  6. Explore how regular operations can support partner countries prepare for emergencies and build resilient systems.
  7. Improved guiding questions, checklists and definitions in grant reporting guidelines could ensure more grounded assessments.
  8. For global/cross-national grants producing knowledge goods, visualization and download data should be required for monitoring.

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