In this blogpost on the occasion of the International Day of the Girl Child, Fabricia Devignes and Tuamanaia Foimapafisi discuss the potential of innovative approaches to advance gender equality and enhance educational outcomes for vulnerable learners, specifically girls.
Despite notable advancements in education access, sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) continues to face persistent challenges with school dropout. Not only does the region host the highest out-of-school population in the world, with almost 100 million children not enrolled in schools, but it is also the only region where this population is growing.
Girls bear the brunt, with 34% of lower secondary-age and 47% of upper secondary-age girls out of school (UNESCO-UIS, 2022) and their situation is compounded as their gender intersects with other sources of vulnerability and exclusion (Cameron et al., 2023). While education prospects are poor for both genders, it is vital to understand the unique challenges girls face. Some of these challenges are specifically related to their gender, like child marriage and gender norms. Other obstacles may affect both genders, but they tend to hit girls harder or undermine their educational outcomes in different ways (Psaki et al., 2022). To help girls stay and succeed in school, we must recognize and address these specificities.
In SSA, UNESCO-UIS estimates show that almost 40% of out-of-school kids were once enrolled, highlighting the untapped potential of dropout prevention (UNESCO-UIS, 2019). However, the lack of accurate information to detect and track dropout in its early stages hinders the creation and implementation of strategies aimed at addressing this issue (UNICEF & UNESCO-UIS, 2016; UNESCO & OREALC-UNESCO, 2022). Existing education management and information systems (EMIS) do not allow to measure and monitor dropout rates at the school level or their estimation at the local or national level. The closest indicators available are out-of-school rates, but they are not accurate enough to address the specific issue of dropout.
When tackling the out-of-school problem, many programs often focus on (re)enrolling children or facilitating young people entry’s into the job market although these remedial approaches have proven to be less cost-effective and more expensive than prevention (World Bank, 2019; Balfanz & Byrnes, 2019). Yet, in SSA, there is still little evidence on prevention-focused education policies designed to combat school dropout and the creation of early detection systems to support these initiatives.
In parallel, programs for adolescent girls tend to prioritize life skills development and enhancing earning capacities over strategies to retain them in school and boost their learning skills. In addition, few programs integrate a gender-differentiated component focusing on the specific factors leading to girls’ dropout, nor do they propose targeted responses to improve the situation (Evans & Yuan, 2022).
Crises like Ebola and the more recent COVID-19 pandemic have underscored the urgency of innovating information systems in the education sector and exposed the fragility of the region’s education systems. The stakes are high, with the potential for losing decades of progress looming unless rapid action is taken. There is indeed increasing evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened structural factors – such as poverty, pregnancy, and child marriage – which were already associated with girls’ school dropout, and deepened existing inequalities across all dimensions of gender equality (employment, health, education, empowerment) (World Bank, 2022).
Early Warning Systems: an innovative and promising approach
We urgently need stronger measures to detect and prevent dropout, especially among girls. We need EMIS that go beyond the mere recording of retrospective variables and the calculation of static indicators (Arnott et al., 2023) and that are equipped to identify students at risk and offer accurate and timely support to meet their needs.
A process-centred approach, focusing on at-risk students, particularly girls, and keenly tracking how they lag behind their peers and gradually disconnect from the education system, is pivotal in preventing school dropout. In this regard, Early Warning Systems (EWS) offer a promising solution.
EWS have a longstanding record in the United States and Europe where they have been instrumental in reducing school abandonment, enhancing teacher-student relationships, and improving school-parent communication (UNICEF, 2017).
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, they have also been gaining traction in Latin America. In Guatemala, a low-cost Early Warning System program led to a reduction of the dropout rate by 4 to 9 percentage points within a year of implementation. Moreover, the program played a pivotal role in dispelling gender biases related to dropout risks, shedding light on the previously underestimated challenges faced by girls and contributing to a more equitable distribution of program benefits between boys and girls (Haimovich, Vazquez, & Adelman, 2021).
Out of the few pilots underway in SSA, Tanzania is a case where pilot schools successfully identified and provided support to 6,500 at-risk students through the EWS. The EWS also fostered stronger connections between students, their families, and schools and facilitated the establishment of partnerships with health, legal, and social services, as well as government stakeholders around dropout prevention (USAID & Bantwana World Education Initiative, 2021).
A new IIEP project to generate and mobilize gender-responsive evidence to scale the impact of EWS in sub-Saharan Africa
- Generate and mobilize evidence to scale EWS in sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on preventing dropout among vulnerable learners, specifically girls.
- Support national stakeholders, including the Ministry of Education, local stakeholders, and development partners, in laying the groundwork for adapting EWS through data and policy tools to help at-risk students participate effectively in learning and avoid dropping out.
This project will focus on three key areas:
- Understanding the school dropout process: We will examine the characteristics of school dropout, the most relevant contributing factors, and the profiles of priority at-risk learners. Our specific focus will be on differentiating girls’ dropout, identifying predominant factors, comparing at-risk girls with other vulnerable groups, and drawing lessons that can benefit similar countries in the region and beyond.
- Evaluating education system readiness: We will assess the extent to which education systems are prepared for implementing EWS and identify interventions with the highest potential for success.
- Strengthening education systems: We will explore what is required to enhance education systems, policy tools, and response mechanisms for early identification and prevention in SSA.
Our project is being implemented in Mozambique and Sierra Leone, but its lessons hold potential value for countries at similar development levels, both within the region and beyond. Additionally, each component of the project places a special emphasis on girls. In particular, one noteworthy component involves employing advanced machine learning techniques to harness existing data and develop models that accurately predict dropout, with a gender-sensitive lens.
While EWS have shown promise in other settings, they remain ambitious endeavours in SSA. However, to catalyse genuine change and combat the dropout issue that has been hindering progress in education access, we must embrace innovative approaches that can bring promising solutions while staying firmly rooted in the context. This is crucial in our mission to advance gender equality and enhance educational outcomes for the most vulnerable learners.
About the authors:
Fabricia Devignes is Senior Education Specialist and Head of the Gender at the Center Initiative (GCI) at UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP). She has expertise in gender and equity with 15 years experience in international education and social policy and gender equality in developing countries on research action, policy formulation, capacity development and program management.
Tuamanaia Foimapafisi is an Educational Consultant specializing in research and development. She has been contributing to various research initiatives at the IIEP offices in Paris and Dakar, including programs co-led with GCI to advance gender equality in and through education.