UNICEF Education Case Study: Using the ECE Accelerator Toolkit to advance the ECE subsector in Liberia

By: Joa Keis Posted: 17 April 2023
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Credit: Ministry of Education, Liberia

The “Integrating Early Childhood in Sectoral Planning” project, supported by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX), a joint endeavour with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), explores the strengthening and scale-up of mainstreaming ECE in education sector planning processes through the use of the ECE Accelerator Toolkit developed under the Better Early Learning and Development at Scale (BELDS) initiative. The project has engaged a cohort of countries (South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Lesotho, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) to further test, adapt and scale use of the BELDS approach and the ECE Accelerator Toolkit. Additionally, the project has sought to leverage the experience of this cohort of countries to expand the use of the BELDS approach and the ECE Accelerator Toolkit to other GPE countries working to inform ECE policy, planning and practice and strengthen capacity of national and international stakeholders in these processes.

In Liberia, the Education Reform Act (ERA) of 2011 mandated the establishment of early childhood education (ECE) across the country and outlined the responsibility of the government in strengthening the ECE subsector. Despite this policy commitment, ECE is not compulsory or free in the country to date, creating barriers to equitable access to the provision of ECE services. Parental poverty may limit access for some children as over half (52%) of ECE provision in Liberia is private and even in public ECE institutions, parents may pay registration, transportation, and uniform fees on top of an annual fee (capped at LRD$3500, or about USD$22). Government funding for the ECE subsector has been limited to salaries for teachers who are on the civil service payroll, which only included 41% of teachers in public ECE institutions in 2020. Another major challenge faced by the ECE subsector in Liberia is the issue of overage enrolment. 67% of ECE students are overage, the highest proportion of any of the education subsectors. This is reflected in the discrepancies between the gross and net enrolment ratios for ECE in 2020: 128% vs. 58.4%, respectively. One reason for this high overage rate are school-level practices mandating minimum academic competencies for entering first grade, which is not a national policy. High ECE repetition rates further contribute to the issue of overage enrolment that persist throughout the education sector.

Addressing these challenges in the ECE subsector was of high interest for Liberia. To address the high rates of overage children throughout the education cycle, it was decided that reforms needed to start in the ECE years. While there was a lot of desire to make changes, it was difficult to get the momentum to move to the next level of commitment. One of the primary reasons was that there was no common conceptual framework on the differences between early childhood education and early childhood development (ECD) when it came to early childhood programming, making it difficult to address issues around educational practices in the early years. Via knowledge mobilization efforts through UNICEF’s “Integrating Early Childhood in Sectoral Planning” Global Partnership for Education knowledge and innovation exchange (GPE-KIX) project and working in conjunction with the UNICEF regional office in Western and Central Africa, the UNICEF Liberia office was introduced to the ECE Accelerator Toolkit. The Toolkit is a global package of tools designed to support countries in developing and mainstreaming ECE subsector plans into broader education plans and budgets and provided the resources necessary to address these issues in the ECE subsector. The ECD Intersectoral Working Group, comprised of line ministries and other development partners, used various tools from the Toolkit during the education sector plan (ESP) development process to arrive at a common conceptual clarity regarding the differences between ECE and ECD and to determine specific priority areas in the ECE subsector to address in the ESP.

First, the ECD Intersectoral Working Group, comprised of line ministries and other development partners, reviewed the self-assessment questionnaire. The questionnaire helped the Working Group determine where there were limitations in terms of understanding concepts. Namely, the distinction between ECE and ECD was made clear in the country context there was improved understanding of the conceptual underpinning between the two. This first step helped the Working Group clarify that the focus of their work should be on ECE rather than ECD. The Working Group also used the Pre-primary Subsector Analysis Tool (Tool 2.2) to examine the enabling environment (ministerial leadership, policies and legislation, public demand, financing) and the core function of an effective pre-primary subsector (planning and budgeting, curriculum implementation, workforce development, family and community engagement, quality assurance). The Working Group met periodically during the education sector analysis/ESP development process to discuss these different aspects and arrived at a series of items that were provided to the Ministry of Education (MoE) to assist in the ESA and eventual development of Liberia’s ESP:

  • There was a gap in terms of policies covering the 5-6-year-old age range, which in Liberia focuses on preschool education. A review of existing policies and acts addressing ECD in Liberia, including the National Inter-Sectoral Policy on Early Childhood Development, Liberia’s inclusive education policy, and curriculum materials (such as the Teachers’ ECD Planner) found that these policies and acts covered the 0-5 and 6-8-year-old age ranges.
  • Regarding ECE financing, public financing needed to be prioritized and ECE could not be wholly left to the private sector for provision, as had been the prior practice. The need to have an actual budget for ECE was also noted.
  • Linkages between ECE and the primary years were defined and improved. Notably, the issues of overage and school readiness were addressed.
  • The need for ECE workforce development was identified, such as the need to develop specialists at rural teacher training institutes (RTTIs), thereby establishing links between the ECD Bureau and RTTIs.
  • The need for quality assurance of ECE was identified.
  • The need for reactivation of an ECE Technical Working Group (TWG) to continue work on these issues and moving the ECE agenda forward was established.

Results achieved

The Education Sector Plan 2022-2027 was finalized in August 2022 and stressed the importance of the role of ECE in furthering educational and socioeconomic development in Liberia. As a result of the work conducted in using the Pre-primary Subsector Analysis Tool to examine the ECE subsector and the items that were provided to the MoE to assist in the ESA/ESP, measurable targets over the next five years were included as part of the ESP, such as decreasing the percentage of over-aged children enrolled in ECE from the current baseline of 67% to 20% by 2027 and reducing the ECE repetition rate from 8% to 0%. Included as well in the ESP is the specific mention of the need to develop a national ECE policy in addressing the gap for the preschool year.

Reducing fees is also a major priority within this ESP. After the Transforming Education Summit in September 2022, the government of Liberia was encouraged to devote more attention to the development of the early childhood care and education subsector as a way to address some of the challenges faced at the primary levels. In the following year’s (2023) budget, USD$2.5 million in ECE registration fees were subsidized by the government in acknowledgement of the need to increase access to ECE for all children.

Lessons learned

  • The ECE Accelerator Toolkit is a useful resource to catalyze existing political will for ECE into meaningful action and to generate positive momentum for the subsector. It can also be used to engage relevant stakeholders in the process of building consensus and identifying contextually relevant solutions to priority needs for the ECE subsector. In Liberia, use of the Toolkit allowed key stakeholders to come to a common understanding of the differences between ECD and ECE, which allowed them to identify clear gaps in policy coverage and other priority areas in the ECE subsector.
  • The Toolkit’s structure allows for flexibility in how it is used to meet countries where they are in their specific country context. In Liberia, which was in the early stages of developing more concrete plans around ECE, the Toolkit, and specifically the Pre-primary Subsector Analysis Tool (Tool 2.2) allowed stakeholders to evaluate the ECE subsector through a holistic “systems” lens.

Next steps

The journey to scaling up ECE in an equitable manner in Liberia is just beginning. Current plans are to reactivate the ECE TWG in 2023 and to build the capacity of the ECE TWG around use of the ECE Accelerator Toolkit, to ensure that what was outlined in the ESP gets translated into action, leveraging the costing tool and other new resources in the implementation and monitoring sections of the Toolkit.

Further, UNICEF and UNESCO have partnered to provide technical support to the MoE to develop Liberia’s first ECE-specific policy that focuses on the 5-6 age bracket. which currently is not sufficiently covered in existing ECD policy documents. As identified in the previously mentioned gap analysis, the absence of a policy to guide this preschool year in Liberia was recognized as a major gap in Liberia’s educational planning, as existing ECD policies focus primarily on services for children in the 0-5 year age bracket and primary school policies address children in the 6-8 year age bracket. This new national ECE policy will cover this gap and further highlights the strong recognition that the MoE and Government of Liberia are according the ECE subsector in Liberia’s education plans.

For more information, please contact: UNICEF Liberia Country Office: monrovia@unicef.org
© UNICEF March 2023