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Dr. Kunbi Wuraola, Director, Policy and Partnerships, Africa, NewGlobe

When the United Nations 76th General Assembly (UNGA76) opens in New York on Tuesday September 14th, it will do so still under the shadow of the global COVID pandemic.

Unlike in 2020, when world leaders stayed away and delivered their pre-recorded speeches by video, this year’s gathering will be at least partly in person, but scaled down and socially distanced.

COVID too is the dominant theme of debate at UNGA76. The session is titled: “Building resilience through hope”

The President of this year’s General Assembly, Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, has made ‘building back better and building back stronger’ one of the pillars of his Presidency.

No aspect of life has escaped the disastrous effects of the pandemic. That includes education. The World Bank’s Education Director, Jaime Saavedra, recently called the prolonged closure of schools worldwide because of COVID “the most serious education crisis in the last 100 years.”

For everyone of the 193 national governments represented at the General Assembly, the challenge of meeting UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 – inclusive and equitable quality education for every child by 2030 – has been made all the harder.

Nowhere though is the slope that must be climbed more steep than in Africa. According to UNESCO, the UN’s education body, sub-Saharan Africa struggles more than any other region on virtually every education measure. It has the highest out of school rates, lowest literacy rates, lowest percentage of qualified teachers and biggest gap between the poorest and richest children completing primary education.

All this has been made worse by the pandemic. More than 250 million African children found their schools closed last year because of COVID. Some – schools in Uganda for example – are closed again now because of fresh waves of infection.

But if the terrible disruption to education in Africa has made things worse, it has also concentrated the focus of many African leaders on what must be done, and what can be done to bring about improvement swiftly, and at scale to education for all African children.

At the recent Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Summit, President Kenyatta of Kenya laid down a challenge to his fellow leaders, to support his Call to Action on Education.

The Kenyatta Memorandum asked for national commitments not just on domestic financing for education, but also to place greater emphasis on improving learning outcomes and new techniques and methodologies which have been proven to yield better results for students.

It specifically endorsed the role of technology in improving learning outcomes and committed signatories to leveraging technology-supported learning to improve equity in access to education. To date the Memorandum has been signed by the leaders of 16 African countries.

Crucial to delivering on the commitments of the Kenyatta Memorandum, and building the resilience and recovery from Covid that UNGA76 is calling for into education systems, is a focus on outcomes driven by data. This is something NewGlobe is supporting political leaders to do across Africa.

Learning is a science. It requires the gathering and processing of accurate data to deliver the best possible outcomes for children in schools, indeed to show that any progress is being made. Without data, there is limited measurement, little accountability and no improvement

Governor Godwin Obaseki of Nigeria’s Edo State explained it perfectly in an interview with CNBC Africa where he discussed the success of his EdoBEST basic education transformation program, now celebrating its third anniversary.

“Today each primary teacher has a handheld device and that handheld device can tell when a teacher is in the class. We can tell whether the teacher has completed his or her lessons for that day. We can tell how many children came to school, and at the end of the period, we can now test and see whether those children really received learning. We have 250,000 children in this program in Edo State.”

The results in over 1,000 schools in Edo State, have been stunning.

Children in EdoBEST now learn at about 70% of the rate of their counterparts in Europe and Asia. The same review of the average situation in Nigerian schools measured them at about 30 percent. It took countries like Singapore, like Korea two to three decades to achieve such speeds.

The use of the same scientific and data-driven approach has also brought huge learning gains in Liberia, where Bridge Liberia, another NewGlobe programme, is the biggest supporter of the Liberian Government’s LEAP initiative in basic education.

A three year study found that 81% of students who joined a Bridge Liberia-supported school in the first grade and spent 2½ years in class were proficient or basic readers; compared to only 33% of students in traditional public schools.

The use of data has also helped children in NewGlobe-supported school systems deal with the impact of closures over the last 18 months. When Covid closed schools in Edo State, clear information about children’s attainment levels meant a tailored program of home learning, EdoBEST@home, could be launched promptly.

The World Bank’s education head, Jaime Saavedra sees this as a major factor in the success of EdoBEST.

“Edo has been very fast at adapting to the reality of COVID-19. EdoBEST@home incorporated digital self-study packets distributed via WhatsApp, interactive quizzes, digital story books and lesson guides delivered to parents are all interesting innovations.”

With schools open again, children are returning with learning losses mitigated as a result, a trend that defies global patterns demonstrating significant learning loss in education systems.

But there is still much work to be done in improving the gathering and use of data in education systems across Africa and the rest of the developing world. The recent Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Result Report 2021 made this clear. It showed that only one third of GPE’s partner countries report on at least 10 of 12 key education-related outcomes.

To build back better after the pandemic, a vital first step will be the ability to gather the information needed to measure educational attainment and track its progress.

NewGlobe’s record of partnership with governments and communities shows not only that this can be done, quickly, efficiently and at scale, but that it is the basis for huge improvements in educational outcomes. Outcomes that have provided resilience in the face of national and global crisis.

As the General Assembly prepares to commit itself once again to achieving SDG4 and to recovery from COVID-19, there has never been a more urgent need to seize the opportunity of creating powerful technology-enabled public education systems; systems that will build exactly the resilience UNGA76 has picked as its title.

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