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Why Governments Must Prioritise Education in Times of Crisis: Lessons From Sierra Leone and Rwanda

Commentary25th July 2022

Technology is super-charging global education efforts. Read the Institute's paper on why it is "Time for a World Education Service" here.


We are at a critical time for education. The Covid-19 pandemic has deprived students of up to two years of schooling, risking a generational setback and leading to an estimated loss of $17 trillion in lifetime earnings for those affected. Even before the Covid-related disruptions, many education systems around the world were in crisis, with students attending school but learning little; indeed, the World Bank estimated in 2018 that 53 per cent of children aged ten in low-income countries could not read or understand a simple story. This number was estimated at nearly 87 per cent for children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite these challenges, policymakers also face the constant temptation to cut education budgets, especially for primary and secondary schools. Because economic dividends for investment in education only materialise decades later and because students cannot exert political pressure by voting, these budgets are easy targets. This scrutiny is particularly intense now, with a global cost-of-living crisis fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic, rising prices for food and energy, and the war in Ukraine pushing some policymakers to look at additional cuts to education funding.

We believe the opposite approach is needed.

In our experience as education advisors supporting the governments of Sierra Leone and Rwanda, we have seen first-hand how governments can make the case for prioritising education funding by adopting a data-driven approach and documenting progress towards improved learning outcomes. When this funding is treated as an investment with an expected return, governments can build a better picture of where to invest scarce resources and how to communicate the benefits. To win allies for these investments, governments must also focus on education’s enormous benefits for multiple policy priorities.

Here’s what we have learned from Sierra Leone and Rwanda’s journeys.

What Sierra Leone and Rwanda Have Achieved

Sierra Leone and Rwanda may seem like unlikely champions of education. Both countries faced cataclysmic violence in the 1990s and today they remain among the poorest countries in the world. But they are hard at work to change that – and investing in education is a central pillar of their economic strategies.

In Sierra Leone, the current government won the 2018 presidential election on a promise of its Free Quality School Education programme. Since then, it has committed to spending 20 per cent of its budget on education as part of this initiative. It became one of the few countries globally to expand education budgets during the pandemic. Today, Sierra Leone has increased enrolment by more than 25 per cent, introduced pre-primary education, achieved gender parity, dramatically improved foundational learning outcomes and seen a record number of students graduating at all levels of the basic and secondary education system.

Similarly, Rwanda has made tremendous strides in its education sector. With a concerted effort to put education high on the political agenda, the country now has near-universal access to primary education with net enrolment rates of 98 per cent. It has achieved gender parity and in recent years built the systems to measure and improve learning outcomes. The key elements include continuous strengthening of learning assessments, delivering teacher training and ensuring the relevance of the education system to the needs of the labour market.

An Impossible Choice: Balancing Access to Education and Quality

Governments and international partners have historically liked to invest in building schools. They are a highly visible improvement, and it’s hard to argue that you can build an education system without them. As a result, in both Rwanda and Sierra Leone enrolment has steadily increased over the past 20 years. 

Yet there has not been sufficient attention paid to whether children actually learn while attending school. In Sierra Leone, a 2014 assessment found that at age ten, 60 per cent of children scored zero on reading comprehension. Similarly, recent learning assessments in Rwanda found that as few as 10 per cent of children in lower grades were able to read and comprehend a text in English even though it is the language of instruction from the first year of school.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of children remain outside the school system in both countries. It is an unfortunate reality that those who would reap the biggest gains from education are also those most at risk of dropping out. Girls are at particular risk for numerous reasons including pregnancy, gender-based violence and lack of access to proper sanitation facilities.

Governments cannot afford to have any students lose out on the benefits of education and therefore must invest in improving the quality of schooling while continuing to expand access for those most at risk.

Access: What to Prioritise

In Rwanda, almost 100 per cent of children begin primary education, but only 10 per cent end up in tertiary education. As a result, the access focus is on keeping children in school and completing at least the kindergarten (K) to 12th-grade (or primary and secondary) levels of education.

Rwanda has used the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI) as a framework to prioritise actions and interventions to improve the “Expected Years of School” indicator.

This includes an expansion of access to pre-primary education, which helps reduce repetition and dropout rates in primary education and improves transition and enrolment rates in secondary education. The specific steps to implementing this have included putting pre-primary teachers on the government payroll, working with community workers to address the frequency of dropouts and removing barriers to education at all levels, including vocational training.

Sierra Leone’s government also focuses on the HCI across education, health and agriculture. Starting with the president, the government takes specific aim at the building blocks for national development that adhere to international indicators and develops specific strategies to reach them.

By having a quantitative target, governments can identify the strongest levers for increasing the years of education and track progress on whether it is meeting its goals.

Quality: How to Measure Returns

Compared to access, measuring improvement in the quality of education is much more complex. There are multiple inputs and it is difficult to establish a linear effect on learning outcomes. Nevertheless, the first step is to measure learning in school through both formative and summative assessments.

When comparing their performance across HCI indicators, both countries perform the lowest when it comes to learning outcomes. These indicators are termed “Harmonized Test Scores and Learning Adjusted Years of School” and can help governments measure whether they are getting a return on their education investments. Both Rwanda and Sierra Leone have invested heavily in establishing better learning-assessment systems and in reconfiguring their education systems.

Rwanda has established the use of the Learning Achievement in Rwandan Schools (LARS) system as well as international learning assessments such as EGRA/EGMA (early-grade reading and math assessments). The LARS has been conducted four times since 2011 and, thanks to the digitisation of its assessment tools in 2020, is expected to be carried out more frequently. Furthermore, Rwanda has introduced Comprehensive Assessments every three months with a nationally comparable round carried out once a year.

Sierra Leone has also established a learning-assessment unit in the Ministry of Education and is planning regular nationwide assessments. In fact, the 2021 EGRA/EGMA study showed that the government’s investments in education have raised Sierra Leone’s performance from the very bottom to above average in its economic bracket in seven years.

With these tools in hand, both countries are now:

  • Adjusting their curriculum to ensure it supports the areas where students currently struggle.

  • Improving teacher training.

  • Developing remedial learning and catch-up programmes for students falling behind.

Accelerating Progress: Using Innovation and Technology to Support Both Access and Quality

Technology and innovation are not substitutes for investing in education, but they can help accelerate progress.

In Sierra Leone, the government launched the Education Innovation Challenge to support five service providers in supporting schools – an investment that will yield context-specific evidence on what kinds of interventions the government should support in the future to improve learning outcomes. In September this year, the challenge will be scaled to support more than 100,000 students in primary school through a partnership with the Education Outcomes Fund.

In addition, Sierra Leone launched SMS-based tools like a dictionary and word-of-the-day service, and gave students the option of checking their final exam results and school placement on their phones for free. Recently, the country launched a learning passport that gives students access to past exam papers on their phones. The tools have been used millions of times and can support all students and their families with phone access – free of charge.

Similarly, during the Covid-19 pandemic, both countries offered free lessons through radio, television, phones and online. Both Rwanda and Sierra Leone emphasise classroom connectivity, aiming to equip 100 per cent of schools with power and internet through the GIGA Connect project. In Sierra Leone the initial target is 200 schools, and in Rwanda the target is to equip all schools with smart classrooms by 2023.

These tools provide support for education at scale and at a minimal cost per student – and they can help light the path towards delivering a world-class education system for every child, an objective the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has explored in recent policy work.

Winning Allies and Working Together to Achieve Progress

Education champions must show their colleagues in government how education can help achieve goals across policy areas. Sierra Leone’s Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, Dr David Moinina Sengeh, has stated: “Quality public education is the closest thing we have to a universally applicable silver bullet to solve our planet’s most intractable challenges, both those of today and those that our children will face.”

Indeed, investing in education can lift incomes of people by up 10 per cent for every additional year of schooling completed and has been highlighted as a central plank of reducing global emissions. It is central to ensuring gender equality, reducing child and maternal mortality and even bringing down crime rates. Many of these challenges are global in scope, but education offers a path to start at home. When considering the potential benefits of education across so many policy areas, ministers of finance, development, environment, gender, health, justice and foreign affairs are all strong potential allies for securing investment. 

It is the responsibility of education ministers to convey this message to the budget authorities and their colleagues in government. Only with predictable and sustainable financing from the national treasury will the education sector be able to achieve its promise of propelling broad-based economic development and social progress.

The key to winning political allies is to ensure that those allies also earn credit for supporting investments in education. This becomes a lot easier if they can point to how the investments in education make a tangible difference in expanding access, improving learning outcomes and fuelling national development. Having clear indicators and a specific strategy to improve performance against these indicators means all supporters can point to the progress made.

By supporting clearly structured investments, the full coalition of allies working to finance education can claim membership in an exclusive group of policymakers who think about their country's welfare from a generational perspective. They can become nation builders.


Image credit: Getty

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