Insights from piloting impactful vocational education for Ethiopian out-of-school children

By: Opiyo Makoude Posted: 14 March 2024
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Credit: GPE/Translieu

Bringing back to school out-of-school children and youth has been one of the key challenges for many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The largest numbers of out-of-school children and youth remain in this region. While this challenge can be attributed to multiple factors ranging from education quality and limited school infrastructure to poverty and cultural values, one of the major constraints is the lack of alternative education pathways for those who do not want to pursue a traditional academic pathway of school-based education. As a result, many out-of-school children and youth opt not to enroll in school at all or choose to leave after the completion of accelerated or catch-up programs, because these are traditionally modelled to transition learners into an academic pathway.  

The Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (GPE KIX) Back2School Project tried to tackle this issue by piloting an alternative vocational pathway for out-of-school children and youth in Ethiopia as part of its larger research on improving education access for out-of-school girls in rural areas in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. The project tested various methods to increase their enrolment, re-entry, retention, and transition into school.  

In Ethiopia, the project piloted a vocational training pathway for 127 children aged 13-17 years in 4 cohorts across two regions of Ethiopia. The children in the vocational training pathway were taken through four months of literacy and numeracy learning in two-hour sessions per week and then subsequently offered training at Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) centres for another 4 months. The literacy and numeracy classes were run in normal public primary schools, taught by teachers employed by the government, but the children followed a distinct accelerated curriculum meant for learners pursuing accelerated education. The vocational skills taught were basic: motorcycle repair, tailoring and food production. Evidence generated through the pilot research shows that this approach is scalable but requires further refinement in terms of content, delivery and partnerships to achieve optimal scale and impact. 

Findings from piloting and testing 

The piloting found that the vocational training pathway offers an important avenue for children who ordinarily would not want to pursue the full stretch of formal education from primary to secondary and eventually university or college education. These children are often driven by poverty to take up income-generating roles in order to fend for themselves and their siblings. The pilot achieved proof of concept—providing a basic education and a vocational training pathway for children who have never been to school is feasible. In Ethiopia for instance, out of the 132 registered learners (55 Male, 77 Female), 106 learners (41 Male, 65 Female) completed their course in different fields. 

During field visits, meetings with youth who had been trained revealed that they found the learning useful, and skills acquired through the program relevant. Some of these youth have caregiving responsibilities for their siblings after losing parents. Some moved out of their households to start life on their own. Staying in school is not an option, yet it is difficult to find gainful income-generating opportunities without basic vocational skills. One of the young girls who had gone through the training secured employment at a local eatery and was already using her skills to prepare snacks and meals at her place of employment.  

Discussions with government officials in Ethiopia revealed that they were keen on scaling the vocational training pathway, even though they pointed out that the model needed to be refined further. The same sentiments were echoed by their Kenyan and Tanzanian colleagues, who indicated that the model was promising and could be taken up with certain modifications in their own contexts. At the district levels in Ethiopia, similar commitment to adapt the findings and lessons from the piloting and testing was expressed. For instance, government officials have held meetings with the Wolaitta Development Association to discuss how to create pathways to employment for young people who received short-term vocational training through the Back2school project. One of the partner organizations that was involved in the piloting and testing of the model, the Luminos Fund, is similarly adopting a vocational pathway in their accelerated learning programming for out-of-school chidlren. 

Lessons from piloting and testing 

There is interest in replicating the Back2School project, but more work needs to be done to refine the model. Discussions at a regional workshop identified the need for longer instructional times, guidance from vocational training institutions, and alignment with local job market realities. There is also a need to plan for and support access to financial services. Furthermore, a good understanding of the labour market is necessary for those seeking employment and a good knowledge of market opportunities for youth graduating from vocational training. Support for access to financial services and markets is thus a key consideration in designing and implementing such projects. 

Overall, the research demonstrates the importance of tailoring vocational training programs to the local context, as locally driven initiatives are more effective because they create ownership and goodwill, which are essential for scaling the impact of interventions. The meaningful involvement of teachers, community members, Ministry of Education officials, parents, and caregivers resulted in a number of important outcomes.  

Building partnerships with schools and TVET centres in Ethiopia facilitated the training of children enrolled in accelerated education. For instance, Hawassa Polytechnic College negotiated with private businesses (i.e. motorbike garage owners) to allow vocational trainees to use privately owned garages for practical skills training, free of charge.  

Additionally, developing broad-based and meaningful partnerships with the Ministry of Education is critical. Governments struggle with challenges in improving education quality, enrolment, retention and completion. They are looking for innovations that could solve these challenges. However, making evidence available does not automatically guarantee that government officials will use it. One major lesson from this project is that involving government in the design of research, its implementation and the validation and dissemination of the findings offers greater likelihood and opportunities for influencing policy and practice. Senior government officials should be particularly involved in the research to increase its likelihood of use at higher policy levels. Only lower-level officials are currently involved, but involving national officials earlier would have a more significant impact. 

Collaborating with parents and caregivers to address gaps in education is an effective approach, but it requires time and resources. Parents and caregivers may have different worldviews with regard to young people’s educational journeys, especially where the youth never enrolled, or dropped out of school. However, when parents and caregivers buy into the idea of vocational training and appreciate its value, they can contribute resources needed for the success of vocational training, and might act as a cushion against drivers of dropout. This was evident from the testimonies of some youth interviewed during visits to the Southern region of Ethiopia who attributed their decision to join the vocational training program based on advice and encouragement received from parents and other community members. 

Vocational training for children with limited basic literacy and numeracy skills has not been widely tested in the region. The successful implementation of such a training model necessitates the involvement of a diverse range of actors/stakeholders who may not have worked together before. Moreover, these projects have a greater chance of success if stakeholders have the skills and capacity for the different components required for the vocational training package. To achieve scalable impact, interventions should blend and sequence skills and capacities development effectively, along with strong motivation and commitment and a functional coordination mechanism amongst implementing parties. 

One other useful lesson is the need for prioritizing monitoring, learning, and evaluation to document outcomes and lessons. However, this requires training and support for adaptive learning. It is important to document failures and lessons from which future projects can learn. Training, mentorship, and leadership are crucial to creating a learning culture. Holding regular structured reflection forums helps to capture and synthesize learning, and to implement it in improving delivery of vocation training. 

Factors for success in vocational education pathways 

This research has surfaced important lessons for accelerated education in Ethiopia. Overall, policies and guidelines for accelerated education must consider the diverse needs of learners and provide alternative learning pathways, such as vocational training and continuing learning programs, to support their goals. These vocational training programs must be tailored to local contexts, with communities at the centre, in close collaboration with governments, NGOs, and development organizations. Strengthening local capacities and establishing early and strong partnerships between stakeholders, including primary schools, vocational training institutions, ministries of education, and certification bodies is essential to sustain and build upon existing progress and to promote seamless transitions between education pathways. Before children can be enrolled in vocational training, they will need to acquire basic numeracy and reading skills. In this regard, teacher recruitment, training, and continuous professional development is also a key factor in strengthening public primary schools, which are crucial for youth who want to enter vocational training. The importance of strategic partnerships, localized approaches, and targeted policies in addressing the challenges of out-of-school children cannot be overemphasized.