Ponga now 14, was forced to flee her home in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she lost her parents to the war. She was left in the care of her grandmother, whose house was eventually set on fire by rebels. In 2019, they left Congo and fled to Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya because they’d heard there was help for refugees there.
When Ponga enrolled in the Accelerated Education Programme (AEP) in Kakuma aged 11, she didn’t know how to read or write. She is now at Level 3 (equivalent to school Grades 4 and 5). She has benefited from the activity-based learning that is a key feature of Accelerated Education Programmes. “We are taught by our teachers how to play different games,” she says, “we play football, jumping rope, and a lot of other games which make us feel good”.
Ponga is one of the many refugee children enrolled in the Accelerated Education Programmes run by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) - with support from Porticus, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) and UNICEF, in coordination with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other education stakeholders. The programme has been running in northern Kenya, in the huge refugee camps of Dadaab (since 2017) and Kakuma (since 2019) as well as Kalobeyei Settlement (since 2019). It was started in response to the large number of over-age children between 10 and 18 who have never been to school, or dropped out due to displacement, conflict and poverty. UNHCR reported that as of June 2022, the were an estimated 113,810 out-of-school children in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps.
NRC gives special attention to supporting children’s recovery from traumatic events experienced during war and conflict, by mobilising a network of caregivers, teachers and counsellors through their “Better Learning Programme” that aims to restore a sense of normality and hope in the students’ lives. The classroom-based psychosocial support gives young people practical knowledge and skills to improve their wellbeing.
Ponga says when she first fled to Kenya, she was carrying a lot of stress and trauma. “Since I arrived here, I’m stress-free and I feel happy here in this school,” she says. “What helped me is how we are taught by the teachers to manage our stress, so that we feel better.”
To ensure they reach the most vulnerable children, the AEP targets students from both refugee and host communities who missed out on basic education due to displacement, poverty, conflict, marginalisation and other barriers. The programme engages community mobilisers who tell families about the opportunity for accelerated education, providing guidance to prospective parents and children.
Alfred is one such student. He lost his father who was his family’s sole breadwinner, and when his mother couldn’t afford to take him to first grade, he was forced to join other children in the streets in search of food. When Alfred joined the AEP, he didn’t know how to read or write either.
“I only knew how to write 1, 2 and 3… but now I was taught how to write 1 up to 100…and then they taught me ABCDs.” He says what makes him happy is that they didn’t ask him for any money, he could simply learn. Alfred has since successfully transitioned to a formal primary school in the region. Both Alfred and Ponga dream of becoming doctors when they finish their studies.
Since 2017, the AEPs in Dadaab and Kakuma have enrolled a total of 8,178 students, some of them refugees like Ponga who had never been to school, and some from the host community, who face multiple barriers to getting an education. A total of 4,500 students have successfully transitioned from AEP classes to formal primary and secondary schools in both Kakuma and Dadaab, making it more likely that they will complete their education.
With schools closed for a total of 10 months during the COVID-19 pandemic, education was disrupted for 17 million primary and secondary school students in Kenya. While the government adopted measures to ensure students could continue with remote learning at home a lot of progress was reversed, as not all children had access to digital equipment and internet connectivity. An estimated 1.8 million children will not return to school this year, with often the most vulnerable being the ones to miss out. Despite NRC’s efforts to transition to radio education programmes, WhatsApp classrooms, and taking lessons to students in remote areas, 15 per cent of the children enrolled in the AEP dropped out during the pandemic.
A 2021 survey by the Kenyan Government, UNICEF and the National Council for Nomadic Education in Kenya (NACONEK) found that teen pregnancy, child marriage and child labour were the primary reasons for children dropping out of school in Kenya. Both the number of out-of-school children and the learning gap is more pronounced in arid and semi-arid counties, as well as Nairobi's informal settlements.
Caroline Kenyi, a teacher in the Kakuma-based Accelerated Education Programme, emphasised that they have been welcoming adolescent girls who dropped out due to pregnancy.
“We have been telling the learners to go and inform other students who dropped out of school because of pregnancy that they should come back to school, and they have this opportunity here to continue with their education,” she said. One of NRC’s strategies to support girls’ education includes providing childcare while young mothers attend their accelerated education lessons.
Jackline Oduor, an Education Officer with NRC in Kakuma, says that students from the community need support in recovering lost time and finishing school at the appropriate age, otherwise they become socially and economically disadvantaged. “AEPs are meant to bridge this gap,” she says. “AEPs tend to provide what the child needs to go to school. They break the barriers that keep children out of school, like school supplies, uniforms, and food.” She believes that accelerated education is an important strategy for ensuring education for all children.
In 2021, NRC’s accelerated education programmes transitioned from the standard national curriculum, with eight years of primary school, to the new Competency Based Curriculum (CBC), which has six years of primary. In this new curriculum, Level 1 of the AEP condenses Grades 1 and 2 into one year, after which students can transition to Grade 3 of formal school or Level 2 within the AEP, depending on their progress. NRC and partners are now working with the Ministry of Education and government officers to develop harmonised accelerated education guidelines to standardise implementation of accelerated education in Kenya.
Kenya is highlighted as one of eight African “focus countries” in Education.org’s accelerated education synthesis which distils a wide range of evidence and provides guidance for education leaders on how they can use accelerated education to tackle pandemic-related learning losses - and the broader challenge of out-of-school-children and youth.
Randa Grob-Zakhary, Founder and CEO of Education.org, said that “pre-COVID 19, accelerated education was a method used more for capturing out-of-school children and youth. Although, we are now seeing that this approach can support learning recovery for a wide variety of contexts.”
“African countries such as Kenya, show us just that, in their pragmatism, child-centered approaches and community support. We truly believe that the world could fast track educational recovery and not only help children catch-up, but also get a foothold within the formal education system,” she said.
PHOTO COURTESY OF NORWEGIAN REFUGEE COUNCIL (NRC)