Schools are where formal learning happens. Equally important, schools are places where children build confidence and life skills, develop social networks, and access crucial services including nutrition and psychosocial support. Not only are schools (and other learning spaces) fundamental to learning and academic attainment, they are also essential to promoting and ensuring children’s overall development, safety and wellbeing.
When schools were closed due to COVID-19, many children did not access learning, or the social, emotional and nutritional support typically provided in school. Unfortunately, many may not return. Predictions are alarming. UNESCO projects that 24 million children are at risk of dropping out  and that 11 million girls may never return to school following the pandemic.[2,3] And it is likely to be vulnerable and marginalised groups, particularly girls, that suffer most.
As schools and learning spaces start to open, a primary goal for governments will be to bring back as many children as possible – so that they can learn and access critical support structures.
In this blog, we focus on two Girls’ Education Challenge projects in West Africa that, when schools reopened, saw an overwhelming majority of children return. Specifically, we explore approaches that may have contributed to these higher-than-expected rates of return.
96% of project participants in MGCubed Ghana and 99% of project participants in GATE-GEC Sierra Leone return to school.
Ghana experienced one of the longest school closures in the world - 53 weeks between March 2020 and January 2021. During closures, the MGCubed project, led by Plan International UK and implemented by Plan International Ghana, focused on engagement and tracking girls’ return to school. As a result, 96% of MGCubed participants returned and were attending regularly when schools reopened, translating into almost 7,000 marginalised children returning to school. This high rate of return appears to reflect the national picture: a nationally representative household survey from the Center for Global Development recently found that dropout rates in Ghana after school closures were surprisingly low and consistent with rates before the pandemic, although some groups have been worse affected than others.
The Girls’ Access to Education-Girls’ Education Challenge project in Sierra Leone (GATE-GEC) experienced an even higher re-enrolment rate when schools reopened in October 2020. GATE-GEC, led by Plan International UK and implemented by Plan International Sierra Leone and partners Action Aid, Humanity and Inclusion, and the Open University, saw 99% of children within its tracked cohort return to school after school closures. This meant that over 9,000 marginalised children returned to schools.
Reflecting on the experience of these two projects, three strategies were central to their interventions:
1. Establishing and maintaining frequent communication throughout school closures
2. Preventing and mitigating economic shocks through increased cash transfer schemes
3. Partnering with existing and embedded systems of support within communities
Strategy 1: Communicate, communicate, communicate
In both Ghana and Sierra Leone, project teams maintained communication with girls using a phone-based model. By phone, girls received learning and wellbeing support at least once a week and parents and caregivers received support at least once every two weeks. Families who were unreachable by phone received in-person visits that leveraged the existing relationships between project staff and the communities in which they work.
Based on a needs assessment conducted soon after closures, the GATE-GEC team used the phone-based model to provide much-needed psychosocial support and first aid. The needs assessment showed that 98% of participants felt sad or very sad about the closure of schools, 65% missed seeing friends and 58% were feeling lonely. Through weekly phone calls, girls received emotional and mental health support (as well as assessments and support on their health, wellbeing and safety), information on back-to-school plans, and discussed expectations for a safe return to school. In turn, this information was shared with government officials to help develop official safe return to school strategies. A recent study from the Center for Global Development found that phone-based support from teachers on GATE-GEC helped get children back to school while also providing crucial emotional support.
In Ghana, project facilitators (teachers supported by the project) turned to phone-based support even before MGCubed staff encouraged it as a strategy. In a survey with facilitators between August and October 2020, 94% of facilitators reported they were able to stay in touch with children from their school and 90% reported already providing educational support to children during school closures.
In response, the project formalised the engagement between facilitators and children in their communities. The ‘learning conversations’ between educators and participants provided structured learning and psychosocial support to girls via phone. Each of the 216 facilitators involved in the project was allocated a list of children and their caregivers to contact either by phone or in-person.
Additionally, a group of mainly female project staff was tasked with providing phone-based support for children facing multiple challenges, including young mothers, pregnant girls and children with disabilities. The team also provided low-tech learning materials and engaged caregivers through community training sessions on supporting learning at home. Of caregivers who attended the training, 94% said they felt either a bit or much more confident to help their child learn at home as a result.
At the system level, both projects used various channels of communication. In Ghana, all messages regarding safe return to schools were translated into local languages and then broadcast via community radio stations and 72 community information centres. In Sierra Leone, alongside localised radio campaigns, the distribution of hygiene and PPE to all schools increased community confidence that returning to school would be safe for their children.
Strategy 2: Boost cash transfers to minimise the economic burden on girls
The most pronounced barrier to girls’ education in both GEC projects is economic, further exacerbated by the pandemic. When faced with financial troubles, families worldwide – and in Sierra Leone and Ghana – needed their children to provide economic support, which in turn, increases the likelihood of dropout from school. At the height of the pandemic, widening access to the already established cash transfer schemes in both projects meant more families could avoid turning to child labour as a coping mechanism and in turn, mitigate the impact on school dropout.
In Ghana, cash transfers had been successful in reducing dropout at a key transition phase: upper primary to Junior High School. During the pandemic, the cash transfer scheme was further expanded to include older girls, children with disabilities and young mothers – groups particularly susceptible to dropout during an economic crisis. In a survey conducted in June 2021, 98% of caregivers who received cash transfers said they had used the money on school-related items for their child.
In Sierra Leone, 200 Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA) groups received cash grants from GATE-GEC to mitigate economic impacts resulting from COVID-19. Groups spent these grants on establishing new revenue-raising approaches to respond to the impact of the pandemic on their incomes, to support their families in managing their immediate needs and in supporting their children’s return to and retention in school. To further soften the economic blow, social protection interventions such as learning materials, food items and dignity kits were distributed to girls.
Strategy 3: Partner with community-based structures
A recent thematic review conducted by the GEC Fund Manager highlighted how effective partnerships with community-based structures could drive more successful and relevant interventions, contributing to better outcomes for girls, schools and communities. Similarly, in Ghana and Sierra Leone, community partners were crucial to tracking trends in school return.
In Ghana, MGCubed worked with District Education officials as schools reopened to monitor trends in children’s return that triggered a follow-up response, and to support schools to follow up with students who had not returned or who were at risk of dropping out. Where data suggested that children were absent or not attending regularly, MGCubed facilitators linked up with District officials to follow up individual cases at the school and community level. The community-led early warning system, along with the project’s follow-up efforts, were key to re-engaging children on the verge of dropout.
A similar approach was adopted by GATE-GEC, which harnessed a wide community network to support children’s return to school. A cohort of newly qualified female teachers supported by the project were trained in psychosocial support and assigned to engage with children who had not yet returned to school. GATE-GEC also leveraged an existing network of Community-Based Rehabilitation Volunteers (CBRVs) and Itinerant Teachers, who provided specialised support to children with disabilities. This targeted engagement from trusted CBRVs and Itinerant Teachers from within the community proved effective in alleviating concerns regarding safe return amongst children with disabilities. As one primary school child said of their conversation with a CBRV, “He gave me confidence to attend school”.
Some strategies are here to stay
The high rates of re-enrolment achieved in Ghana and Sierra Leone suggest that a multi-strategy approach to re-enrolment can be successful. As projects and governments continue to navigate an uncertain educational landscape of distance and hybrid learning models, keeping an eye on barriers to re-enrolment will be crucial. In both projects, strategies to sustain the high rates of return – particularly in the face of future lockdowns – are central to discussions with the Ministry of Education and communities. Elsewhere, tailored approaches to these strategies may help re-engage children quickly and effectively.
*Click here to “Meet Felicia” one of the Facilitators working with her community in Ghana*
*Click here to reach the UKFIET website and read about Interventions to strengthen teaching quality during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Experience of the Girls’ Education Challenge in Afghanistan, Ghana and Sierra Leone*
 See https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/unicef-executive-director-henrietta-fores-remarks-press-conference-new-updated and https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/education-and- COVID-19-focusing-on-the-long-term-impact-of-school-closures-2cea926e/