Meet Aditi. Aditi is 11 years old. Aditi lives with her mother and younger sister Didi, who is 7 years old. They live on the outskirts of Mumbai, in a waste-picking community. Aditi and Didi have lived here ever since they were born. Every morning, their mother leaves very early to collect used plastic to sell. Aditi used to help her mother, but now she goes to school with Didi instead.
In fact, Didi is the same age as India’s Right to Education Act (RTE). Passed into law in 2009, the RTE Act guarantees a free and compulsory education for all children aged between 6 and 14. Aditi and Didi’s mother relies on teachers and the government to follow through on their promise of giving her daughters a good education. She hopes that her girls will learn to read and write. When they are women themselves, they will be able to get good jobs. Not like waste picking.
There are many children in Aditi and Didi’s school, and they have many friends. Aditi is in Class 6. She spends a lot of time listening to the teacher in the classroom. But Aditi finds reading very difficult. No matter how hard she tries, the letters look like funny little squiggles on the page. She is motivated to learn, but no one seems to notice. Aditi still has fun and plays with her friends at break time.
Understanding the problem
Aditi is just one of 250 million children across the world who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. Half of these children, like Aditi, have spent at least four years in school. When Aditi leaves primary school next year, she will likely joint the ranks of the 200 million young people who have left school without the skills needed to thrive. This problem extends beyond Aditi’s community. It extends beyond India. It is a story that has been retold in Mali, Senegal, Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda by the People’s Action for Learning Network (PAL Network). This is a global learning crisis.
The PAL Network is an internationally recognized south-south collaborative whose nine member countries work across three continents to assess basic reading and numeracy competencies of over 1 million children annually, in their homes, through citizen-led assessments. The involvement of parents (like Aditi’s mother) in watching community volunteers assess her girls demystifies learning by offering her the opportunity to see how they perform. Aditi’s mother does not need to know how to read, to understand that her daughter is struggling. She does not need to have attended school herself to understand that there is a problem and she needs to take action without waiting for the government.
Achieving equitable access and learning for all children
Last September, 193 world leaders met 12,500km from Aditi and Didi to ensure that this problem is a thing of the past by 2030. They committed to ensuring equitable and universal access to quality education for all children. The explicit reference to equity is very important. PAL Network data shows that the most disadvantaged children are the least likely to be learning and the most in need of support. In rural India for example,ASER data shows that – by age 7 (the same age as Didi) there is already a performance gap between poorer children who are first-generation learners and richer children whose parents attended school.
By age 8, gender begins to interact with socio-economic status with a widening gap between poor girls whose parents have not been to school and their male counterparts. By age 11 (the same age as Aditi) poor girls only have the same chance of learning as their rich counterparts had achieved three years earlier. The graph below demonstrates the wide disparity in children learning the basics in India.
Source: Pauline Rose’s calculations based on data from ASER India’s household-based learning assessments: 2008-2013
Why is it important to track progress in the early years?
Uneven progress through primary school often depends on sources of inequality associated with inherited disadvantage. This uneven progress, coupled with insufficient mechanisms to identify children who have failed to acquire basic skills, leads to children like Aditi falling behind. 250 million children falling behind demonstrates the vital need to track progress in children’s learning early in their primary school careers.
This is particularly important if children like Aditi are to be given the opportunity to thrive. Without foundational skills, children like Aditi cannot progress meaningfully in the education system. And what’s the point in an education if children emerge after years in school without the skills they need?
It is critical to measure learning early so that corrective measures can be taken early. Foundational skills in reading and numeracy are the building blocks for all future progress in school. Leaving assessment until the end of primary school means that millions of children may miss out on their right to quality education.
Can assessments alone ensure quality education for all children?
Members of the PAL Network do not claim that assessments alone will ensure improved learning and quality education. But we believe that citizen-led, household-based assessments of basic competencies are an essential start in informing those involved in every stage of the learning chain (parents, teachers, local communities, local and national governments) to pinpoint where learning is happening or not happening.
Contrary to a recent blog post accusing assessments of shifting the focus of analysis from the performance of the state to that of the individual student, the PAL Network believes that providing parents, schools, and communities with local, relevant data on learning levels allows a much larger constituency of informed citizens to hold their governments to account.
In fact, the design of these national, large-scale, citizen-led assessments can serve as the catalyst for broader conversations about the overall functioning of the education system. Those conversation are anchored by large-scale data. Rather than shift attention to the individual student, these assessments actually focus the attention back on the state as the aggregated data forms a worrying bigger picture.
The bigger picture does not just include children who are attending school. As PAL Network assessments are household-based, this means that all children are assessed, irrespective of their schooling status. This is incredibly important in holding governments to account for their commitment to providing quality education to all children.
Assessment in itself is not a solution to the lack of learning, but the first step in providing data that is vital to hold policymakers to account for tackling disadvantage early on. In the absence of information about the acquisition of foundational skills in the early years, it is much more likely that we will find Aditi picking waste in ten years’ time. We owe it to children like Aditi to intervene early enough to make a difference.
Hannah-May Wilson is a Program Manager in the PAL Network Secretariat. The PAL Network brings together nine countries working across three continents to assess the basic reading and numeracy competencies of all children, in their homes, through annual citizen-led assessments. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org