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What happens when we make learning the focus of our work? Reflections on the Sierra Leone Education Innovation Challenge

Updated: Jul 1

April 2024


The education sector is facing a dual crises of low learning outcomes and inefficient and inequitable funding. Learning outcomes were already low before the COVID-19 pandemic and they have further deteriorated as a result of school closures. It is estimated that seven out of every 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries could now be suffering from learning poverty – meaning that they are unable to read and understand a simple story.[1] In Sierra Leone, a study revealed two out of ten pupils do not finish their primary education and are therefore less likely to have acquired the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed in their adult lives. Addressing these crises requires innovative funding mechanisms to achieve better learning outcomes for children, build strong and sustainable education systems and close the education financing gap to accelerate progress towards SDG 4.


In 2022, in partnership with the government of Sierra Leone, the Education Outcomes Fund launched the Sierra Leone Education Innovation Challenge (SLEIC), an outcome-based programme to respond to the country’s learning crisis and step up efforts to achieve national objectives. Outcome-based funds are innovative funding mechanisms where the unique skills and resources of governments, donors and social investors are pooled together and only paid out once pre-agreed outcomes are achieved. This ensures donors’ funding is only used to pay for results and implementing partners have greater flexibility to support schools, caregivers and communities in enhancing children’s literacy and numeracy skills.


With a budget of $18 million, SLEIC brings together state and non-state actors to improve the learning outcomes of 134,000 children aged 6-12 attending 325 government schools spread across all districts of Sierra Leone by 2025. The initiative is rolled out by five implementing partners – EducAid, National Youth Awareness Forum in collaboration with KIZAZI, Rising Academy Network, Save the Children, and Street Child [2] – that are only paid when the predefined outcomes are achieved.


In addition to improving learning gains, SLEIC seeks to generate insights and evidence to inform future education programs and policies throughout the program lifecycle. The initiative also fosters systemic change by promoting a shift towards more results-driven resource allocation.  


Learning gains during the first year of SLEIC  

 

The impact of each implementing partners’ intervention on learning outcomes is measured annually through a rigorous randomized controlled trial (RCT) conducted by an independent evaluator. The RCT compares the results of schools that received intervention with those of similar schools that did not. Each year, the evaluation measures students’ progress in Mathematics and English, as well as the percentage of students reaching the minimum competency level in these subjects.  

 

The evaluation results are already out for the first year of SLEIC. When reviewing these results, it is important to note that the evaluation period was cut short, spanning just one and a half terms instead of a full year of three terms [3]. Additionally, while certain intervention models showed statistically significant impact on learning outcomes in the first year, it is worth noting that learning improvements in outcome-based financed (OBF) education programs often manifest more gradually over time[4].  

 

One particularly notable result from the first year’s evaluation study is the average improvement in numeracy skills by 0.125 standard deviations across all implementing partners. This surpasses the median effect size on learning of 138 randomized controlled trials of education interventions in low- and middle-income countries [5]. The improvement in numeracy skills was slightly higher for girls. Additionally, in one year, there was a 6% increase in girls achieving minimum math competency, thereby equipping them with essential arithmetic skills and problem-solving abilities compared to the baseline. On the other hand, the first year’s evaluation study did not show a statistically significant impact on English literacy.  

 

Encouraged by these early achievements within a shortened evaluation period, we are excited to continue our collaborative journey with all SLEIC partners, with the upcoming years promising even greater opportunities for shared growth and learning as the program shifts to a fully outcome-based payment system. 

 

SLEIC's collaborative journey and tailored strategies for educational outcomes 

 

SLEIC is characterized by a collaborative and adaptive approach towards achieving educational outcomes. The program benefits from a diverse coalition of implementing partners, including international and national NGOs. This coalition brings a wealth of community insights and the ability to test a variety of approaches. These organizations are not only developing robust data systems for better performance tracking and intervention planning, but they are also preparing to apply these systems in other programs to enhance transparency and outcome orientation. With the data collected and a keen understanding of the children’s needs, the implementing partners have been developing various tailored strategies to respond effectively to the Sierra Leonean context. Below, we highlight a few examples of these innovative approaches:  

 

Table 1: Examples of innovative adaptations by SLEIC’s implementing partners 

Implementing partner 

Example of innovative adaptation 

EducAid 

Development of tools for safe, inclusive classrooms for repeating students and grouping of students by learning level for personalized teaching 

National Youth Awareness Forum 

Implementation of a girl child empowerment program as a safe space for girls to discuss and overcome challenges related to discrimination and social norms 

Rising Academy Network 

Leveraging of community involvement by empowering School Management Committees to monitor schools effectively and tackle issues like school safety 

Save the Children 

Engagement of volunteer teachers through community initiatives and government partnerships  

Street Child 

Supporting at-risk children through personalized social support and community engagement to address absenteeism through community sessions and 1-to-1 meetings with caregivers 


In addition to each implementing partner analysing their own data and adapting interventions accordingly, peer learning and collaboration have emerged as key elements in overcoming common challenges to enhancing children's learning. Fostering effective peer learning among partners has been a journey marked by both achievements and obstacles. Initially, EOF faced hurdles in establishing a conducive environment for meaningful exchanges. The goals were not clearly defined, and the facilitation process was restrictive, preventing partners from fully engaging and benefiting from the learning opportunities. By incorporating feedback from the implementing partners, we successfully restructured the forum into a targeted, expert-led platform. This shift facilitated deeper engagement, allowing participants to directly address significant challenges and collaborate more effectively beyond formal meetings. This evolution highlights the value of adaptability and collective ownership in promoting continuous learning and improvement. 

For a deeper understanding of the practical application of these strategies, Save the Children has contributed insights through a blog post detailing their experience within the SLEIC program. Their blog provides a candid reflection on their journey to become a more results-oriented organization, the challenges faced, and the strides made in improving learning outcomes.  


Learning is at the core of SLEIC 

At the heart of SLEIC is a commitment to learning—not only for the children participating in the program but also in generating evidence about what effectively improves learning. This is achieved through an outcome-based framework that prioritizes transparency, adaptability, and the necessity of addressing specific local needs. To achieve this aim, we are conducting an extensive and thorough process review, extending beyond mere outcome metrics to encompass qualitative insights. This approach enables us to understand the reasons behind the success of interventions, guiding the scaling and replication of effective practices. These insights are derived from independent evaluations and ongoing monitoring of the interventions. We plan to share further findings and insights in upcoming blog posts. 



SLEIC has been co-designed with Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Basic and Secondary School Education (MBSSE) and the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI). The Education Outcomes Fund has partnered with many organizations committed to providing quality education. SLEIC is co-funded by: the Government of Sierra LeoneBank of Americathe Hempel Foundationthe Korean International Cooperation Agency and the UK government. The implementing partners are EducAid, National Youth Awareness Forum, in collaboration with KIZAZI, 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 the National Youth Awareness Forum is financially supported by Rockdale Foundation


 

This blog was written by Juanita Penuela and Elena Casas, program team members of the SLEIC.


 

Footnotes

 1. World Bank. (2022). Learning and Poverty: The Economics of Schooling in Low-Income Countries.

2. Most of these implementing partners have been supported by impact investors, such as the Bridges Outcomes Partnership and the Rockdale Foundation. 


3. Data collection timeline was moved earlier to not coincide with the presidential election period in Sierra Leone, anticipating potential disruptions in schools and communities caused by this event. Adjusting the evaluation timeline was feasible because, during the first year of the program, the funding strategy focused on input-based payments rather than outcome-based payments. This input-focused approach was designed to collect valuable data and allow implementing partners time to adjust to the implementation process. From the second year onwards, the program shifts to a payment system fully based on outcomes.


4. For instance, during the first year of the Quality Education India Development Impact Bond, only 40% of schools met their targets; however, by the end of four years, student learning had improved by 2.5 times compared to those in non-participating schools. 


5. Across the 138 RCT studies in low- and middle-income countries that measured reading or math outcomes, a median impact of 0.10 SDs is found. The median impact is smaller for math assessments at 0.07 SDs. (Evans & Yuan, 2022).

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