“The government has to see improvement in education as a priority”
How do you take a proven intervention to build reading and math skills from one continent to another? Devyani Pershad from Pratham and Moitshepi Matsheng from Young 1ove compare notes during the global convening of Real-time Scaling Labs in Feusisberg, Switzerland (July 2019).
Caroline Smrstik Gentner: Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) is a pedagogical approach that assesses children’s reading and mathematics skills using a simple tool and then regroups students according to learning level rather than age or grade. When planning this kind of educational intervention, government engagement is crucial. How do you ensure that?
Moitshepi Matsheng: We bring people at each government level, from the civil servants to the Permanent Secretary for Education, on board from the start. That way we’re working on the solution together, instead of individually. In Botswana, we now have a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) spelling out clear tangible outcomes for the government, their expectations and our responsibilities. The MoU is a structure for sustainability of the program: even if government employees are changing, this document still exists to solidify expectations.
Devyani Pershad: Exactly. We stay focused on how to enable the government to do this. If priorities change or people change, at least we’ve built capacity in the system.
CSG: Are some lessons transferable from India to Africa?
DP: TaRL was developed in India and we experimented for many years across India to learn about what works and what doesn’t. It was only around 2015 that we formally started supporting the growth of TaRL outside India. So we’re still learning and every context is different.
One thing I can say is that working with strong local partners – whether government or organizations like Young 1ove – who understand their context and can grow and adapt the TaRL approach has been key. If we at Pratham had to do this alone and from scratch in every context, we would not see the same kind of success.
“The most important first step is to have all stakeholders recognize and agree on the problem: within an educational system, with communities, with volunteers.”
The TaRL methodology is flexible so it looks and feels very similar inside different classrooms. However, things like mentoring or support, or how to build capacity of governments in resource-constrained settings – this is very different in the African countries than it has been for us in India. There’s huge potential for cross-learning, even though contexts are very different. One of the most important roles of TaRL in Africa is to enable learning and sharing and communication among different partners, which wouldn’t happen otherwise.
The most important first step is to have all stakeholders recognize and agree on the problem: within an educational system, with communities, with volunteers. This is often not a straightforward process, especially if there’s not enough data, or sometimes there’s so much data that it is too complex to understand. We’ve found that once there’s agreement on the problem, that triggers the intention to try and solve it.
CSG: What else do you find out when you compare your experiences in different countries?
DP: In India, we’re known as tough partners, because in our partnerships the regional governments have to take care of all costs and organization, and we bring our know-how and our people. The situation in most of the African countries where we’re working is quite different. Pratham is working directly with governments in three countries and with supporting partners in seven or eight. Since we know there are constraints on resources, we can’t take anything for granted. In Africa, we can’t just come in and expect governments to bring in the required resources. We’re often working with partner organizations, and concentrate more on helping governments build scalable and sustainable models.
“Our effort is more than just training a handful of teachers. We say: here’s what we know, take this approach, go try it, make it your own and then take it forward.”
Because TaRL isn’t a training program – it’s an approach and a methodology – our effort is more than just training a handful of teachers. We say: here’s what we know, take this approach, go try it, make it your own and then take it forward.
MM: The government has to see improvement in education as a priority, and align national and regional strategies and policies. Related to that, you need to have champions at every level engaged throughout government: partners who really understand the approach and what it intends to achieve, but also want to solve the problem. This is how we’ve been successful in Botswana in getting the program going.
DP: In Côte d’Ivoire there’s been ownership at all levels in the education ministry right from the beginning. We’ve provided training, technical support, thinking support, and know-how, but the overall implementation is completely done by the government system. This is very encouraging. Challenges will come, but the fact that there is an intention to keep moving forward is incredible. Côte d’Ivoire is reaching a stage where working with the TaRL methodology is poised to become a part of their policy.
Moitshepi Matsheng is co-founder and country coordinator of Young 1ove, an educational organization in Botswana that is working with the government to adapt and scale the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) remedial education approach, with the aim to reach 80,000 learners by 2022.
Devyani Pershad is head of international collaborations for the India-based NGO Pratham, which pioneered TaRL. She is also the TaRL Africa team lead for Côte d’Ivoire, where TRECC is supporting TaRL Africa and the Ivorian government in implementing TaRL in cocoa-growing communities.