Learning Circles, a Promising Innovation for Improving Literacy and Numeracy in Sierra Leone post-COVID-19

In Sierra Leone, “Learning circles” are helping the ministry of Education and development partners to deliver learning opportunities to the most vulnerable children and mitigate learning losses due to the pandemic.

Isatu Foffanah, an eleven-year-old from Bo District, proudly announces she now knows “how to read, pronounce and write letters very well.” She continues: “Now I know how to count, I know the numbers.”

Isatu is one of the more than 35,000 children since 2021 who have participated in and benefited from the learning circles, a community-level platform for catch-up learning opportunities for children. The learning circles, she says, “made me gain confidence in my education.”

Despite efforts by the government of Sierra Leone, education outcomes for many children have been low. While enrollment rates have increased since the introduction of Free Quality School Education (FQSE) in 2018, literacy and numeracy outcomes have only marginally improved.

A recent survey by the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) found that in grade 4, for instance, up to 66% of children still can’t read a single word, 70% can’t read to comprehend simple sentences, 67% of learners can’t do addition, while 77% can’t do simple subtraction.

One of the key factors contributing to these low learning outcomes is the lack of adequately trained and qualified teachers with skills to deliver child-centered literacy and numeracy instruction. And when schools closed in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many children could not access learning opportunities and as such experienced further learning losses.

In fact, amid the pandemic, teachers and community volunteers reported that they did not have the resources and knowledge required to continuously deliver quality education during school closure.

An action plan to deliver learning opportunities

To mitigate these learning losses, the MBSSE and education partners developed the COVID-19 Education Emergency Response Plan.

With funding from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) through the World Bank plus other development partners, including UNICEF, the MBSSE delivered and expanded its radio distance learning program, providing recorded lessons and tailoring support for struggling children to enable catch-up learning outside of school hours. This provided continuation of learning for children who were unable to return to school or temporarily excluded due to quarantine.

However, despite the excellent work of the MBSSE in rolling out the radio teaching program, many disadvantaged children, especially those in remote and marginalized communities, were not accessing the programming.

To address this challenge, the MBSSE invited the NGO Consortium—a group of seven education partners comprising of Save the Children International, Concern Worldwide, Handicap International, Plan International, Focus 1000, FoRUT and Street Child of Sierra Leone—to deliver accelerated learning in the most remote schools.

Working with pillar leads of the Emergency Education Taskforce, including the MBSSE, the consortium collectively designed and agreed specific interventions to improve delivery of quality, safe and inclusive learning opportunities.

The consortium adapted the “learning circle” approach.

Learning circles are a community-level platform for catch-up learning opportunities for children, including remedial classes for those children requiring more specific support, with a focus on literacy and numeracy.

Street Child of Sierra Leone had prior specific expertise in the Teaching at the Right Level (TARL) approach, and the consortium was supported to draw from their experience with the methodology.

While other consortium members like Concern Worldwide and Save the Children used slightly different approaches from TARL, the core elements of the learning circles were the same. The learning circles provided opportunities for children to learn in a more child-friendly, play-oriented, and child-centered approach that focused on delivering learning based on the children’s learning level, abilities, and needs.

The consortium established and supported 1,012 learning circles across the districts, reaching 35,000 children. The learning circles took place two to three times a week, with an average of 30 children attending each roughly 90-minute session.

The NGO Consortium provided the learning circle facilitators with specific training to effectively facilitate the sessions in a gender-sensitive and inclusive manner. The learning circles were supported with basic teaching and learning materials as well as solar radios.

In communities that could receive a radio transmission from the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation, the learning circles blended teacher-led activities with the MBSSE’s radio-based teaching program.

Learning circles have impact

An assessment of learning outcomes for the learning circles involving 3,612 learners (1,819 boys, 1,793 girls) found that 44% of children were able to read a paragraph at the end line versus 0% at baseline, and 60% of children were able to do 3-digit number operations at end line compared with 2% at baseline.

The results demonstrate the efficacy of the learning circles in recovering from learning losses and underpin the value of the interventions done by the NGO Consortium.

Ten-year-old Isatu Foffanah shares that she learned a lot through the learning circle sessions: “I did not know the digit numbers, but now I am able to write them, I am to do arithmetic operations. I am now able to write a letter with a story about my school in composition.”

The learning circle facilitators commended the teaching methodology, particularly the TARL approach. Mohamed Conteh, a teacher in Bo District, explains that he found the TARL approach effective because it “provides the opportunity to every child to improve in their ability to learn. Before this time, the school curriculum promoted pupils base on their sizes, age, or familiarity with the teachers, but now they are promoted based on their improved learning abilities, literacy and numeracy skills.”

Moses M. Gaygba, a trained and qualified teacher from Njala University, also notes a vast difference with the TARL methodology: “Since its introduction in the schools, it has created a lot of impacts. It has helped children to improve immensely in their ability to read, write and as well count.” He says he “would even recommend the adoption of learning circles and integration of TARL in the education system of Sierra Leone.”

The MBSSE has recently developed a new education sector plan under the theme of transforming learning for all for the period 2022–2026.

The plan recognizes that urgent attention is required to address learning deficits. The sector plan gives attention to transforming learning for all by strengthening foundational learning, recruiting qualified teachers, and professional teacher development, among other interventions.

Catch-up clubs and TARL are promising interventions that can greatly complement achieving foundation learning. The NGO Consortium is committed to implementing a similar intervention in support of the plan.

This article was by Kalako Mondiwa, and published on Global Partnership for Education

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