Essay 14

Make Inclusive FLN a Signature Issue for Education Systems

Moses Ngware



Girin Beeharry’s essay is provocative, thoughtful, and timely, and it makes a case for prioritising foundation literacy and numeracy (FLN) as a way of stalling the learning crisis in low-income countries (LICs) and low-middle-income countries (LMICs). Girin submits that “unless these efforts aim squarely at the problems of prioritization [of FLN], performance monitoring, and accountability, their impact will be minimal at best.” This powerful assertion cannot go without reflection from someone who cares about FLN.

Where am I coming from?

The world over, education systems have similar traditions—they mainly measure learning by assessment scores in literacy and numeracy, and since such an approach tells us a lot about what is going on in the system, so be it. The word “literacy” elicits memories of adult education programs common in many LICs, and LMICs, but now we also know it is a necessary foundational skill for learning; likewise, numeracy skills prepare children to process quantitative concepts.

In 2016, the World Bank, arguably a force to reckon with in financing education and generating new knowledge, brought to our realisation the presence of a silent crisis – the learning crisis.1One would be excused for denying this revelation; the Millennium Development Goals agenda had just ended in 2015, implying that their accountability mechanisms failed to pick up on the crisis at an early stage. Fortunately, a new dawn was breaking with the rebooted global goals or Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with their emphasis on indicators to measure progress in FLN. As the old adage goes, creating FLN skills in early life is critical because it empowers children to be independent learners; and in later life it enhances an individual’s ability to make informed decisions that lead to better life outcomes.2 FNL skills are therefore critical as they unleash individuals’ potential to benefit more from education, with a caveat here that research on long-term impacts of FLN is still nascent, as Girin explicitly acknowledges.

We do not want to create an impression that FLN matters only in early learning. Available analyses on private and social benefits of education (I mean good education) in later years show positive returns for literacy. For instance, globally, literate workers earn between 58 percent and 70 percent more than illiterate workers; they are also more likely to have skills to progress in their careers and improve their salary throughout their lifetime—if you like, the economic benefits of literacy.3 Furthermore, literacy is a key driver of numeracy skills, as seen in several robust studies.4 If we are to project backwards, it would, therefore, mean that better later life outcomes, including productivity and inclusion that can be linked to development, can be traced in investments in FLN. Hence, FLN is not only about school children but has much wider implications to the life of the communities, especially in LICs and LMICs. In most of these countries, it is easy to see FLN as being limited to children and schools, and in many instances, fail to see the potential long-term wider impacts—a fact that may result in the underinvestment in FLN. One cannot entirely blame the minister, as there is little knowledge on these long-term benefits, further mystifying the matter. I will return to this argument later when expounding on the notion of making FLN a signature issue and an approach to conducting business in education. Girin’s essay is, therefore, timely and a strong reminder of what education systems should never drop from their radar if these benefits are to accrue to their communities.

Reflections on Girin’s essay

Where I agree with Girin

Girin’s essay could not have come at a better time, with many countries globally, including the LICs and LMICs, strategizing on “building back better” after the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on learning. Girin’s position is that to accelerate progress towards achieving SGD 4, and perhaps addressing the learning crisis, countries must prioritise a few things. In his words, this includes making FLN a priority, measuring what we do in education, and holding ourselves accountable for the results.

As an advocate of FLN and their associated pedagogy, and a person who generates evidence in support of effective policies and practices in education, I could not agree more with Girin on the “what,” for four key reasons.

First, Girin makes a very strong and spirited case for prioritisation, especially of FLN. Even if a country and/or any other actor, especially in LICs and LMICs, were to differ with Girin regarding FLN, they will unreservedly agree on the need for prioritisation. I am convinced of this because systems the world over are known to develop terrific education plans that lay out priority areas. Furthermore, open cheques to implement education plans are non-existent, hence a need to focus on the priority areas. Absence of a priority is a precursor to failure, and even if education systems do not prioritise FLN, at least there should be something they have prioritised.

Second, when we measure processes, outputs, and outcomes, we improve our understanding of the path to success and enhance our chances of victory because we learn and adapt from our own actions. It is, therefore, imperative to follow Girin’s advice on performance monitoring. Failure to do so would result in guess work, hunch, rule of the thumb, and subjective experience informing decision-making. If this happens, it wouldn’t be surprising to find children who have been left behind in learning or even misallocation of scarce resources, which we want to avoid at all costs.

The third reason I find Girin’s essay compelling is because of its “human rights” approach to development that advocates for the need to hold duty bearers accountable for the outcomes—the buck stops with someone. In particular, various positions and different levels of offices should be held accountable for implementing various activities whose sum effect is improving FLN skills. Accountability improves a systems performance5 and it would be beneficial in stalling the learning crisis, but such accountability could be more effective if there exist explicit feedback loops that are professionally anchored on trust.6

Lastly, the recommendations target key stakeholders with interest and responsibility for improving learning, ranging from LICs to development partners and civil society organisation. In each group or individual stakeholders, the essay makes very explicit “asks” that can be taken up and implemented. This way, “key persons of interest” in stalling the learning crisis have practical take-home messages from the essay.

My areas of departure from the essay

In the above, I have taken an optimistic view of Girin’s essay. I now want to look at the other side of the coin without being pessimistic, and perhaps offer some perspectives and some caveats. To start with, Girin’s essay comes out as presenting the “what.” While this is important, and we should all know what we want to do, the struggle is in the “how” to improve FLN. LICs and LMICs have long espoused quality, inclusivity in learning, and early learning; what they are now struggling with is the best strategies to make this happen in the context of education systems let down by the structural rigidity of their sub-systems. For instance, Girin uses Kenya as an example of an LMIC that has prioritised FLN. Kenya demonstrates the strength of using existing government systems to implement reforms in education—somehow moving away from piloting projects through NGOs to piloting and scale up through government system, and also somehow overcoming structural barriers.7 This approach presents important lessons for reversing the learning crisis.

Equally important, though not so explicit in Girin’s essay, is the various political economy contexts in developing countries. In most LICs and LMICs, their political systems are very  dynamic and sometimes turbulent, but key reform decisions are mainly centralised and sometimes used to seek elective positions for competing political interests.8 The essay provides an example from India, where inclusion of FLN did not come from electoral demand but from the conviction of bureaucrats—my player is this should continue even after the bureaucrats exit their current official positions. In fact, Mitchell and Mitchell once said that “policymakers are tempted to adopt inconsistent and even incoherent policies trying to placate all important constituency groups.”9 The buy-in by political leadership is critical if FLN or elements that could enhance FLN are to be prioritised and receive the much-needed domestic budget support. Furthermore, as I argued earlier, entrenching FLN in the education system should be a goal and a strategy to reverse the learning crisis. Such entrenchment and budgetary allocation requires political good will. Fortunately, there are many countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, that have reformed, or are reforming or plan to reform their education systems, even before the pandemic struck. This provides an entry point for entrenching the FLN into the system if political will is supportive and if structural rigidities are dealt with, a priori.

At the risk of sounding pessimistic, how do I convince myself that if LICs and LMICs prioritise FLN, measurement, and accountability, this time round the results will be different? I think getting it right is more complicated, though Girin’s essay provides a good starting or entry point. I anchor my argument of this complexity on two assertions. First: “Deep-seated and long-standing structural faults that run through many education systems, such as large class sizes, low levels of teacher competence and motivation, and books in the wrong language, are frequently ignored in the process of curriculum reform” (Cunningham, 2018, p1)10. Second,“One reason education systems struggle to address the learning crisis is that the quality of the sub-systems (curricular design and lesson plans, textbook design, assessment tools, and teacher coaching and support) is often low, and in some cases missing altogether. Just as importantly, though, the coherence among these ‘core’ sub-systems is often missing.”11 These issues will stand in the way of prioritisation, measurement, and accountability – and perhaps they equally deserve to be fixed, a priori.

My other point borrows from two of the three dimensions of the learning crisis as documented in the World Development Report.12 The two happen to be interrelated and include the immediate causes, and the deeper system causes. Addressing the immediate causes is akin to going for the much-talked-about low-hanging fruits, such as strengthen early childhood education to make children ready to enter primary school, teacher school-based and classroom-based mentorship support, eliminate input leakages so that children and teachers can access instructional materials, and the wider education governance issues. Never mind these are the same sub-systems that create complexity in the education system. In the longer term, the education system will need to reboot its structural formation, as I suggested above.

Lastly, one would be forgiven for insinuating that Girin is too hard on the GPE board—it sounds like he is saying “the buck stops with you.” While GPE and other players in the education sector have a major role to play in addressing the learning crisis, each has limitations, known and unknown. Furthermore, some of the players—such as the World Bank, USAID, and FCDO (the part that was formerly DFID)—have been in this space long before the GPE and its predecessor came into being; they also existed long before some of the LICs and LMICs got their political independence. Given the dynamics of the funding sources such as pool funding and basket funding, and perhaps related national interests from the fund source, I would look at this as a shared responsibility, but as would be expected, some global institutions and ministries of education in LICs and LMICs should lead from the front.


The question remains: What is the best solution to the learning crisis? My quick response to this self-formulated and rhetorical inquiry is there is no magic bullet to fix the crisis, but there are several innovative ways that LICs and LMICs can adapt to arrest and perhaps reverse the crisis. One of them is FLN and Girin makes a strong case for it.

That said, I would make three proposals by way of both conclusions and recommendations. First, there is no harm in trying different innovations that could help countries understand the “how” to improve learning. Innovations could be interventions, strategies, policies, practices, dismantling structural rigidities, decisions among others. However, such innovations should be piloted and/or scaled within the existing government or ministerial systems. Failure to embed this within such systems is simply flogging a dead horse, and I mean a dead horse. That said, it is important to appreciate the challenges of working within a bureaucratic system, but for sustainability, I do believe this is what is needed. In any case, one cannot run away from adaptive management when dealing with a crisis of this magnitude.

So, what should we run away from if we are to reverse the path the crisis has taken? In my second proposal, other than proof of principle, stakeholders with a reform mindset should run away from standalone project model of implementation that is usually common with us who are in the NGO/CSO sector, to piloting and scaling within the ministries of education systems. I hear some people say that it can be painful because of the style of doing things but it might enhance sustainability, ownership, strengthen capacity of practitioners and education managers, and at the end, scale up elements of an intervention that could start reversing the learning crisis. In other words, pull away interventions from a project model to a system model.

Finally, FLN can and should be viewed as a signature issue in education around which other things could be anchored. For instance, we can hold various positions and offices accountable through demonstrating how well they have improved FLN skills and competences; budgets can be allocated based on projected improvements in FLN skills and competences; teaching and learning materials in various subjects can be developed to respond to FLN needs; teacher professional development programs can be taken close to the classrooms and reformed to speak to FLN. This way, and as a signature issue, FLN becomes institutionalised and an approach and/or a reference point of organising programs, reforming structural rigidities, and measuring success in education.