Overcoming barriers to learning for the world's most marginalized

Written on 20 May 22 by Dr Suzanne Grant Lewis
Educational equality
Educational quality
Social demand for education


Improved learning and greater equity and inclusion are key elements of Sustainable Development Goal 4. With the focus on learning for and by all, it remains common to assess equity and inclusion through comparisons of national average learning outcomes when in most low- and middle-income countries the differences within countries are far greater.

This second publication of the “Learning at the Bottom of the Pyramid” series draws attention to this reality. A key contribution of this edited volume is the authors’ concerted recognition of and attention to sub-national analyses of the context, asking who is marginalized, what forces cause their marginalization, and what are their barriers to quality learning.

As Lauren Pisani and Amy Jo Dowd point out,

The profile of the most disadvantaged children differs depending on the context, as do the primary drivers of their educational outcomes.

An understanding of the varied contexts of marginalized children and youth is critical because only with such understanding can we attempt to effectively address their learning needs. Failure to do so carries a cost, as Nathan M. Castillo, Taskeen Adam and Björn Haβler suggest in their discussion of the implementation of EdTech in low-income contexts:

A major factor that affects success or failure at the last mile is how much (or little) consideration is given to the socio-economic, cultural, socio-technological, political, and geopolitical contexts.

The book explores thematic issues (e.g. metrics and financing) along with insightful contextual analyses on four countries: India, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Mexico and this addition of the country case studies brings significant additional value to the book. These authors bring a rich mix of perspectives from government, NGO practice and academia from the countries they are studying. These locally generated analyses explore the meaning of “the bottom of the pyramid” in their respective countries, including its scale, and they report on efforts—effective and otherwise—to address the learning needs of different marginalized groups. Several case studies also explore the interconnectedness of causes of marginalization, such as poverty and language (Mexico, India) and disability and age (Kenya). Country analyses include explorations of the historical, sociocultural, and economic forces determining not just marginalization but how these same forces influenced the policy frameworks aiming to address the learning of the most marginalized.

It is noteworthy how many authors highlight the power of engaging effectively with parents and community. Studies on Mexico, India, Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya all reference the role of communities, as do Pisani and Dowd’s dissection of different types of marginalization, Jo Kelcey, Ozen Guven, and Dana Burde’s chapter on migration, Kwane Akyeampong’s chapter on teacher education, and the Castillo, et al analysis of EdTech. I have recently reviewed numerous analyses of effective accelerated education programmes (AEP) for out-of-school children and youth (OOSCY) and they consistently highlight the key role of the community in enhancing inclusive education. Effective AEPs (many would say effective formal schools) incorporate families and communities to ensure AEPs are workable learning options for OOSCY in the community. In the planning stages, communities are asked about barriers to education enrolment and persistence, so that those barriers may be addressed. Communities often support learner safety on the way to/from and at the centres and provide oversight for teacher and learner attendance, learning outcomes, and other outcomes such as transitions to other learning opportunities. AEP teachers and facilitators often come from the communities, with the benefit of being from the same cultural and linguistic background as the learners, which encourages enrolment and bolsters community involvement and ownership. The language of instruction is a key part of making education inclusive. Teachers from the community can provide contextual understanding that teachers from outside the community may not have and also promote community investment in the programme.

This argument for the primacy of context leads to the corollary that a one-size-fits-all approach to the needs of disadvantaged children and youth is unlikely to work. A uniform policy or strategy for all marginalized children and youth risks not meeting the needs of any marginalized group well. This is because learning needs and barriers to learning vary. Serving the needs of refugees is not the same as serving the needs of language minorities, or overage children and youth with disabilities, or poor girls who dropped out of school due to early pregnancy. Differentiated strategies are needed and without due attention, programmes often unintentionally exacerbate or reproduce barriers to learning. Data remain a constraint to differentiated strategies. A large proportion of marginalized children and youth are out of school because the formal education system did not serve or underserved them. But to design strategies for meeting OOSCY learning needs is challenged by the lack of data. Data on out-of-school OOSCY are rarely disaggregated beyond sex, excluding other categories of exclusion such as age, wealth, disability, displacement status, and ethno-linguistic heritage. Data systems for non-formal education, in general, are poorly integrated into ministry of education systems used for monitoring education goals and plans, a reflection in part of the low prioritization. Millions of children and youth were out of school before the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for better tracking of disaggregated OOSCY is even more critical as attention turns to opening schools and recovering lost learning opportunities.

But as Lauren Pisani and Amy Jo Dowd point out,

Contextualized targeting of policy is challenged by a relative lack of data—especially for disability and language differences—but makes iterative testing of policy and implementation no less important

Overarching policies on equity and inclusion are important. They signal government priorities and provide a framework in which a range of strategies can be proposed to serve the most marginalised. To date, government policies on equity and inclusion aimed at ensuring enrolment and completion of marginalized children and youth remain uncommon. As important, beyond policy documents, is a demonstration of commitment to equity and inclusion as evidenced by translation into strategies and plans, dedication of human and other resources, and in monitoring access, retention, learning outcomes, and learner transition to determine progress toward commitments.

Daniel A. Wagner, Nathan M. Castillo, and Suzanne Grant Lewis (eds.) (2022). Learning, Marginalization, and Improving the Quality of Education in Low-income Countries. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2022.

Dr Suzanne Grant Lewis is currently Chair of Education Science and Policy of Education.org. She has extensive experience in improving educational opportunities in the developing world, particularly in education policy and planning in Africa. Prior roles include Director of the International Institute for Education Planning (IIEP-UNESCO), co-founder of the International Education Funders Group (IEFG), Director of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa and Harvard University faculty member (1997-2006). Dr Grant Lewis pursued graduate studies at Kenyatta University (Kenya) and holds a PhD in International Development Education from Stanford University (USA).

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