Niger: Strengthening the resilience of the education system to limit the effects of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Niger to rethink how its education system works. To limit the effects of school closures, adapt learning to the uncertainties of the health crisis, and strengthen the system’s resilience, GPE has made funding available to Niger to support its emergency program. An essential support for the education of thousands of children across the country.

February 09, 2021 by GPE Secretariat
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9 minutes read
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A teacher with her students in their classroom in a school in Niger. Credit: UNICEF/Niger
A teacher with her students in their classroom in a school in Niger.
Credit: UNICEF/Niger

AFD and UNICEF partners have contributed to this blog post.

By the spring of 2020, Niger was the Sahelian country most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. By March 28, the government had decided to suspend classes in all schools across the country to limit the spread of the virus.

Like other countries, Niger was grappling with an unprecedented situation. Overnight, more than 3.7 million students at all levels and more than 80,000 teachers found themselves forced to stay home. This situation increased the risk of school dropout and exacerbated the many other challenges that children, especially the most vulnerable (those living in rural areas, girls, and refugee and internally displaced children), already faced.

For many of Niger’s schoolchildren, remote learning during the worst periods of the pandemic was not an option. Some materials were distributed, but the country was not prepared for large-scale remote learning. Alternative solutions, such as radio programs, were not developed in time to reach large numbers of children. Only a minority have been able to stay linked to their schools through digital technology. The majority, who live in rural areas, have not been able to continue their studies.

How could all students continue learning from their homes? How could curricula be adapted to the special requirements of remote learning? And how could the education system be made more resilient and better prepared for a smooth return to normalcy once the pandemic was over?

The closure of schools in Niger has had a negative impact on children’s education and well-being, particularly among girls in marginalized communities, who have paid the highest price.

“Those were difficult months, I remember. With everything I was seeing on television, I was afraid to leave the house”, says Soraya.

Soraya, 10, lives with her seven siblings and their parents in a two-bedroom house in Niamey, the capital of Niger. Soraya’s parents are hard-pressed to feed their children breakfast and lunch and buy them school supplies.

Soraya, 10, seated in her classroom.
Soraya, 10, seated in her classroom.
Credit: UNICEF/Niger

GPE accelerated funding: A boon for Niger’s education sector

Already facing many challenges before the pandemic, Niger’s education system needed urgent support to meet the new challenges brought on by the crisis.

By early April 2020, GPE had mobilized $8.8 million in emergency funding to help 87 countries, including Niger, plan the response of their education sector to the pandemic. The $70,000 of this funding allocated to Niger, which was channeled through UNICEF, has enabled Niger’s education ministries to draw up a plan using communication and coordination tools. In Niger, the education sector involves six different ministries, coordinated by the Ministry of Higher Education.

In order to implement this plan, in May 2020 the country submitted an application to GPE for COVID-19 accelerated funding. GPE approved the application on June 30, and Niger received an $11 million grant, intended to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and strengthen the resilience of the education system.

The program focuses special attention on the most vulnerable children, including those living in rural areas, girls, and refugee and internally displaced children.

In particular, the program aims to support:

  • continuity of learning outside schools and adaptation of school curricula to new ways of learning
  • safe reopening of schools
  • preparation for and launch of the new school year 2020–2021
  • the resilience of Niger’s education system.

The nationwide program, which is expected to run for 18 months (from July 2020 to December 2021), is being implemented jointly by two partner agencies, the French Development Agency (AFD) and UNICEF.

It provides for crosscutting activities, including needs assessment, capacity building, monitoring and evaluation of learning, and production of knowledge that will serve to both enhance the performance of the education system and strengthen its resilience. The lessons learned from the program will help inform discussions on how to strengthen preparedness and response capacities.

A teacher in her classroom in a school in Niger. Credit: UNICEF/Niger
A teacher in her classroom in a school in Niger. Credit: UNICEF/Niger
Credit: UNICEF/Niger

Beneficiary schools were selected on the basis of vulnerability criteria established in consultation with the regional directorates of the ministries of primary and secondary education. For example, distribution of handwashing kits has been prioritized for schools without a water supply and in communes affected by floods or COVID-19 cases.

The Education Sector Common Fund (FCSE, see box below) has been heavily involved in this response. The involvement of the FCSE is essential to ensuring the sustainable strengthening of the education system, and the fund will play an important countercyclical role in the event that budget constraints lead to a reduction in the funding allocated to the education sector.

Dealing with COVID-19 without interrupting children’s learning

The closure of schools has forced Niger to consider new ways of learning and adapt its education and training services.

Thanks to the support of GPE and the collaboration among the education ministries, partners (AFD and UNICEF), and the Global Education Cluster, by September 2020 the country had succeeded in implementing the following activities:

  • At the primary education level:
    • 2,058 schools were provided with handwashing kits (10,282 kits in total). These are schools not equipped with handwashing facilities or located in communes that have been affected by COVID-19.
    • 426,555 educational materials were printed with funds flowing through the FCSE during the first half of October. They are distributed to students on the basis of their results in placement tests administered at the beginning of the year, particularly for students in the third year of primary school.
    • Teacher training in remedial instruction and COVID-19 measures is planned before the end of the year. Guides and modules have been developed in collaboration with the Ministry of Public Health. The GPE funding will be used to pay for the training of third- and fourth-year primary school teachers, and additional funding from UNICEF will be used to train other teachers in the country.
  • At the secondary education level:
    • 363 of the most vulnerable facilities received 1,819 handwashing kits. Another 1,530 kits have been ordered for institutions overseen by the ministries of Vocational and Technical Education, Youth and Sports, and Cultural Renaissance.
    • Learning and refresher materials have been developed in all subjects for students in the first year of secondary school. This required the mobilization of 47 working groups, each composed of three people (teachers and school inspectors).
  • At the central level:
    • Refresher course materials and training modules on remedial instruction for primary and secondary school teachers have been developed.
    • An information campaign on the health risks associated with COVID-19 was designed in coordination with the Ministry of Public Health in order to disseminate key messages on protective measures.
    • An awareness-raising campaign was launched in mid-September when students returned to school. The campaign included radio broadcasts of COVID-19 prevention messages in schools, information campaigns in the regions covered by the program, and distribution of guidelines for the application of hygiene measures.
    • 75,000 radios have been ordered and will be distributed to the most vulnerable households in the coming months.

The ministries’ response plan focuses on ensuring continuity of instruction despite school closures. The reopening of the schools on June 1 for 45 days required a slight reorientation of activities to quickly secure schools and prepare them for the arrival of children and teachers.

Students in their classroom during a lesson. Credit: UNICEF/Niger
Students in their classroom during a lesson.
Credit: UNICEF/Niger

New challenges to overcome

The floods of August and September 2020 forced the government to delay the start of the school year—initially planned for October 1—by 15 days.

In addition, while the pooling of educational resources among secondary school teachers is effective (it made it possible to share and disseminate content, resources, and good practices prior to the start of the school year, in particular via WhatsApp groups), educational support activities had not yet begun in September, because the teaching tools necessary for these activities had not yet been distributed.

Indicators for monitoring the progress of primary school students with the RapidPro tool (an application used by UNICEF to collect accurate, real-time information on vital matters such as health, nutrition, education, and child protection) have been identified and validated by the ministries of education.

Training for the personnel responsible for data collection and analysis in all regions, which was planned for October but had to be postponed until November and December, will cover all regions of the country.

What next?

Despite all the difficulties, the continuation of the project holds the promise of better days to come for Niger’s students and teachers.

Thanks to a partnership with the World Food Programme, a school feeding program was set up in mid-November 2020. The back-to-school period was an opportunity to reinforce messages aimed at raising awareness of COVID-19 protective measures among students and teachers and launching a program to help students catch up on lost learning.

The support of the various education stakeholders in Niger, both during and after the pandemic, will ensure that millions of children can continue to learn under better conditions and that the education system will be able to cope more effectively with future crises.

The pandemic has opened the eyes of various actors to the need to focus more on the resilience of the system and to work on tools that will allow education to continue in crisis situations.

The Education Sector Pooled Fund in Niger

The Education Sector Pooled Fund (Fonds Commun Sectoriel de l’Éducation, FCSE) is a national education financing fund aligned with Niger’s national public financial management system. Its resources are protected by means of a special Treasury account and dedicated budget appropriations. This gives the FCSE additional measures of effective fiduciary control and management.

The fund includes pooled contributions from GPE, Canada, France/AFD, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and UNICEF and supports the implementation of the National Education and Training Sector Plan (Plan sectoriel national de l’éducation et de la formation, ETSP) 2017–2030, supplementing the regular State budget allocation. The FCSE represents a good practice encouraged by GPE. The fund’s alignment with national systems contributes to their improvement and allows better pooling and coordination of external resources.

The pooled fund addresses gaps in sectoral investment and in the delivery of education services in pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools, including through school construction, provision of school health and nutrition services, school operating costs to support free schooling, teacher training, supply of textbooks, and emergency educational support for displaced and refugee children in response to the state of emergency in the Sahel.

The pooled fund provides average annual funding of $30 million (about 5% of the annual costs of the ETSP, but up to 20% of non-wage costs). A portion of the financing is contingent on results and progress in structural reforms for the sector, in particular:

  • a reduction in the centralization of public resources and the inefficiencies of central administration
  • better decentralization of public spending for a more equitable allocation of resources
  • improvement in the delivery of essential textbooks in the early foundational years of primary school
  • increased resources from the national budget for continuing education for teachers, with targets set for regular training of all primary school teachers and improvement of observable results in teaching practices throughout the country.
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