In September 2018, researchers from nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa gathered in Johannesburg to participate in the ‘Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems’ (RLO) Africa Symposium. The event was organised by the RLO Programme Research Lead Team which is charged with reviewing the scientific contributions of research across the programme. Rafael Mitchell from the University of Cambridge’s Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre attended the Symposium and presented an overview of the Impact Initiative as well as the African Education Research Database, which consolidates research outputs from across the region.
The papers presented in the Symposium represented the work of eleven research teams across nine countries – Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Niger, South Africa and Uganda – highlighting common challenges such as resource scarcity and inequalities in access and learning associated with gender, disability and income.
The first day consisted of 15 presentations from the RLO programme, including studies on the legal and policy contexts of deaf education in Ghana and Uganda (Anthony Mugeere, Makerere University; George Akanlig-Pare, University of Ghana); a Liberian experiment in devolving the management of government schools to private operators (Dackermue Dolo, IPA); an intervention promoting parental engagement in Ugandan primary schools (Katie Pollman, Mango Tree); accountability and learner resilience in schools serving disadvantaged communities in South Africa (Andrew Patterson, JET Education Services; Heleen Hofmeyr, Stellenbosch University); an intervention encouraging more interactive engagement between teachers and students in Physics lessons in Ethiopian primary schools (Mekbib Alemu, Addis Ababa University); the extent to which universities are fostering students’ critical thinking skills in Ghana, Kenya and Botswana (Christine Adu-Yeboah, University of Cape Coast; Mary Omingo, Aga Khan University, Kenya; Richard Tabulawa, University of Botswana); and factors affecting the learning of low-income university students in South Africa (Mikateko Hӧppener, University of the Free State).
Other presentations focused on methodological issues, such as reflections from fieldwork in early childhood centres in rural Malawi (Jenipher Mbukwa-Ngwira, Catholic University of Malawi), the quality assurance of data collection amongst displaced communities in Niger (Erick Ngoga, International Rescue Committee); efforts to measure gender inequality in Malawi (Dorothy Nampota, University of Malawi); and the development of empirical benchmarks for early grade reading in African languages (Nompumelelo Mohohlwane, Stellenbosch University).
On the second day, Programme Research Lead Team consulted Symposium participants on the development of an analytic framework which will be used to synthesise and report on findings across the RLO Research Programme. The Symposium concluded with an ‘impact’ session based on the South African context, with research presentations on the links between leadership and learning in rural and township schools (Servaas van der Berg, Gabrielle Wills & Linda Zuze, University of Stellenbosch; Ursula Hoadley, University of Cape Town). Policy actors Professor Mary Metcalfe (former director-general of the South African Department of Higher Education and now with the Programme to Improve Learning Outcomes), Carol Nuga-Deliwe (Chief Director, Planning, Research and Coorindation at the Department of Basic Education, South Africa) and Godwin Khosa (CEO, National Education Collaboration Trust) offered insights on the influence of research on national-level decision-making, and Nompumelelo Mohohlwane (Deputy Director: Research, Monitoring & Evaluation, Department of Basic Education) shared advice to researchers on how to work with the government to provide evidence for policy impact – a priority of all research funded within the RLO programme.
The Symposium provided the opportunity to help grant holders understand the complexities beyond their own borders and learn from each other’s work. Richard Tabulawa (University of Botswana) said a key take-away from the event was understanding common challenges, regardless of geography: “…despite our differences, we experience the same problems, face the same resistance in some instances, but we are not alone”.