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FEATURE STORYNovember 2, 2023

Transforming Pre-Primary Education Through Political Commitment and Community Engagement in Ethiopia

Ethiopia pre-primary students

Students at Cheleleka pre-primary and primary school. Photo: Tina Belaynehe/World Bank

Early childhood is a critical time for learning and development, laying the foundation for future success and productive citizenship. In-depth research, including The Perry Preschool Study, has shown that providing children with quality early childhood education fosters high cognitive, language, physical, and socio-emotional development, and paves the way for higher educational attainment. It has far-reaching long-term impacts on the lives of individuals, and the countries in which they live, and is an integral piece of developing better human capital and a strong economy for a country.

In Ethiopia, the provision of early education was once limited to non-government actors, such as private organizations, NGOs, and faith-based schools, primarily in urban areas. In recent years, with support from development partners, including the World Bank, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education initiated various programs to expand access to early childhood education.  

The "O-Class" program is the most notable pre-primary education initiative among the various pre-primary programs. In 2010, the Government of Ethiopia made a strong commitment to ensure that all Ethiopian children have access to pre-primary education, regardless of their social class or other attributes. The O-Class was introduced as one of the modalities to increase access to pre-primary education, particularly to the country's marginalized urban poor and rural children.

The one-year, play-based program is offered by government primary schools for children aged six and prepares them for primary school. O-Class focuses on early literacy, numeracy, creativity, and environmental awareness through interactive activities. Since its launch in 2011/12, the program has significantly expanded pre-primary education access, increasing coverage from 5.3% to 44% in 2021/22. Many youngsters have benefited from the program by gaining core skills before starting elementary school. There is already evidence that shows that children who have participated in O-Class are more likely to be ready for primary school and to perform better in primary school.

Oromia is one of the regions of Ethiopia that is implementing the O-Class program widely and has registered impressive results. In less than five years, the region has quadrupled its net enrollment ratio in O-Class education, from 11.45% in 2017/18 to 48.2% in 2021/22. The program is supported by the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) under the General Education Quality Improvement Program for Equity (GEQIP-E), which is co-financed by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), UNICEF, and the governments of Finland, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Denmark.

GEQIP-E is a comprehensive program aimed at improving internal efficiency, equitable access, quality, and system strengthening in general education. Through quality enhancement and assurance approaches, the GEQIP-E team has played a significant role in scaling up and enhancing the quality of O-Class in all regions in Ethiopia. Support has been provided through school grants, training of O-Class teachers on age-appropriate, play-based teaching methodology, and developing and implementing school inspection standards.

Key Drivers for Success in Expanding Access in Oromia

Strong commitment and ownership

In 2020/21, the regional education bureau presented compelling evidence that linked low investment in pre-primary education and poor learning outcomes in primary grades. This led to a strong commitment, vision, and investment to expand access.   “There is a commitment starting from the regional president, and the pre-primary issue is one of the agendas and criteria for performance appraisal for the Cabinet members at each level, to ensure commitment of the leadership at all levels,” said Mr. Workenehe, Director Oromia Regional Education Bureau School Improvement Program Directorate (which led the Early Childhood Education Program).

The annual regional education summit now recognizes the best-performing education offices, generating competition and further commitment to the effort.

Strong Community Engagement

Community engagement is key to the success and sustainability of the program and its long-term successes. In Oromia, community engagement led to increased awareness by parents of the importance of early learning and the availability of the O-Class program. As a result, communities began demanding access to pre-primary education for even younger children aged 4 and 5, in addition to those enrolled in the program. This demand was fueled by parents appreciating the benefits of the O-Class, such as having more time for daily chores and seeing better developmental outcomes in pre-primary children compared to their primary-grade siblings. Additionally, the availability of a school feeding program further drove demand for pre-primary education services and the regional government responded, expanding access.

The school compound of pre-primary sections in Cheleleka pre-primary and primary school, Oromia region. Photo: Tina Belaynehe

Major achievement: More access, better facilities

Policymakers' commitment and community engagement have resulted in the rapid construction of pre-primary schools in Oromia, making early childhood education more accessible to children. In 2021, 3,700 standalone pre-primary schools were built, each with 2 to 4 classrooms, separate latrines for boys and girls, and access to water. Between June and November 2022, an additional 6,700 pre-primary schools were constructed under the program. This has led to a 7.4% increase in the pre-primary education gross enrollment rate. with a significant increase in the approach for children aged four to six, from 10.4% to 32.9% within the span of a year. This success would not have been possible without the active participation of the community, which provided material, financial, and professional support for the construction and furnishing of the classrooms.

Addressing challenges through innovation

Due to the scarcity of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) trained teachers, staffing of the newly constructed 9,000 pre-primary schools posed a significant challenge. However, the region devised an innovative solution - they selected female primary education teaching diploma holders who had passed the Certificate of Competency (COC) examination but were unemployed. They were provided with six weeks of ECCE training and then deployed. In the first round, 3,000 female teachers were trained and deployed in schools. Furthermore, 7,000 teachers (6,000 female and 1,000 male) enrolled in 6 colleges with 2 rounds and were deployed to accommodate the newly constructed pre-primary schools.

“Overall, we become successful in staffing all the newly constructed pre-primary schools and the experience from the GEQIP-E program, on training teachers for O-Class, was a baseline for all this strategic planning and achievement,” said Befekadu Sirneessaa, Oromia Regional Education Bureau Teachers Development Program expert.

The lessons from the Oromia region in improving access can serve as a valuable model for other regions aiming to achieve impressive results and can hopefully be adapted and replicated for success. Oromia's success lies in the synergy between policymakers' commitment and community engagement, which led to the accelerated construction of pre-primary schools and increased access to pre-primary education. Their innovative approach of training primary education diploma holders can be easily replicated in other regions that are facing a shortage of trained pre-primary teachers. By adapting these strategies, other regions can potentially replicate Oromia's achievements in early childhood education.


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