Unlocking learning outcomes: The Sierra Leone Education Innovation Challenge

Learnings from the Sierra Leone Education Innovation Challenge's one year journey.

September 05, 2023 by Juanita Penuela, Education Outcomes Fund
4 minutes read
Students at St Luke's Pre-primary school in Wilberforce, in Sierra Leone. Credit: World Bank
Students at St Luke's Pre-primary school in Wilberforce, in Sierra Leone.
Credit: World Bank

In a world of ever-evolving challenges, one constant challenge prevails – the global learning crisis. This crisis has grown even more urgent with the COVID-19 pandemic's disruptions to schooling and the sharp increase in 'learning poverty' rate in low- and middle-income countries from an estimated 57 percent in 2019 to an estimated 70 percent in 2022 (UNICEF 2022).

In Sierra Leone, the government launched the Sierra Leone Education Innovation Challenge (SLEIC) in 2022 to address learning loss and fulfill its commitment to providing free quality education for all.

A groundbreaking approach to financing learning outcomes

As an outcomes fund, the SLEIC adopts a finance model wherein a) government and donors contract partners to achieve pre-specified outcomes, and b) payments only occur when these outcomes are achieved.

Launched by the government of Sierra Leone and the Education Outcomes Fund (EOF), the SLEIC at its heart is anchored by an obvious yet innovative idea: prioritize children’s learning outcomes.

Outcomes funds redirect attention from implementing pre-defined activities to attaining pre-specified outcomes.

With a budget of US$18 million, the SLEIC aims to enhance the learning outcomes of 134,000 children aged 6 to 12 in 325 government schools spread across all districts of Sierra Leone.

Over the course of 3 years, the SLEIC is offering financial incentives to 5 implementing partners— EducAid, National Youth Awareness Forum, Rising Academy Network, Save the Children, and Street Child—to improve student literacy and numeracy skills, with a specific focus on girls.

In addition to the anticipated increased learning outcomes for children who directly benefit from the program, the SLEIC has been designed to generate valuable insights into the most effective intervention models suitable for the Sierra Leone context so these models can be scaled up by the government.

A focus on outcomes offers flexibility to address education challenges

SLEIC’s implementing partners actively assist government schools through teacher training, student support, community engagement and the promotion of child protection and safeguarding.

By focusing on outcomes and not on specific activities, the SLEIC grants essential flexibility that allows partners to continuously improve their intervention models throughout the course of the program. As implementing partners gather feedback on what works, they can adapt their interventions and concentrate on implementing activities that yield more significant results.

Using this flexibility during the first year of the program, implementing partners and social investors have already gone beyond the scope of planned activities to surmount critical challenges to enhancing learning outcomes, namely teacher motivation and grade repetition:

  • Sierra Leone’s education system relies heavily on volunteer teachers and faces the need to motivate these teachers to improve their performance, as better teachers impact on better learning outcomes for students. In response, implementing partners identified community engagement as a way to support teachers and awarding government-recognized certificates for participation in training programs.
  • Data has shown that children repeating grades tend to do worse academically their second time in a given grade level. To address this challenge, one implementing partner developed a detailed guide for teachers to support children to break out of this negative cycle and gain the skills and mindset to be successful learners. This tool aims to create a sense of recognition and safety for repeating children to keep them engaged and support their academic success.

Discussion forums as a space for partnership accountability and transparency

The SLEIC positions children and their learning outcomes at the heart of multi-stakeholder discussions, fostering heightened accountability and transparency within mutual efforts to achieve agreed-upon goals.

In SLEIC’s inaugural year, creating spaces conducive to open discussion and promoting collaborative problem-solving are proving vital to the program’s success. These forums encourage partners to engage in candid conversations about education challenges, such as the education system’s dependence on volunteer teachers.

The solution-oriented spirit of these dialogues has been facilitated by influential individuals within the government, implementing partners and donor organizations, who all served as role models inspiring others to shift their focus from fixating on challenges to seeking proactive solutions.

Unleashing evidence-informed insights for greater impact

While the SLEIC is still in its early stages, the initial results are promising, and we anticipate sharing them on our website soon. As the program continues, we expect implementing partners to fine-tune and adapt their approaches to maximize impact on children’s learning.

The collective experiences of SLEIC’S implementing partners will contribute to a wellspring of evidence-informed insights to guide future policy decisions in Sierra Leone that could inspire other countries to embark on similar journeys.

On SLEIC’s journey, the Education Outcomes Fund has been fortunate to partner with many organizations committed to providing quality education to unlock the potential of millions of children and empowering them to achieve their dreams. The SLEIC is co-funded by: the government of Sierra Leone; the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office; the Hempel Foundation; the Korean International Cooperation Agency; and Bank of America. The implementing partners are EducAid, National Youth Awareness Forum, Rising Academy Network, Save the Children, and Street Child. EducAid, Rising Academy Network and Street Child are supported with upfront capital and performance management by Bridges Outcomes Partnerships and National Youth Awareness Forum is financially supported by Rockdale Foundation.

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I am highly impressed with the work the Sierra Leonean government is doing in the field of education for children. Thanks a million for your financial support.

As a non-governmental organization, can we apply and work in collaboration with the Ministry of Education?

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