By Emeline Wuilbercq

LOYA, Ethiopia, Nov 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — When Genet's father died four years ago, it cut short her fledgling studies, forcing the 12-year-old Ethiopian girl to drop out of school and take a babysitting job to help her mother make ends meet.

But a charity's accelerated schooling programme has helped Genet and more than 2,000 other children in Ethiopia get back to the classroom this term — resuming studies disrupted by conflict, poverty, and child labour.

"I'm happy to go back to school for the second time," said Genet, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, adding that she felt especially fortunate because her younger brother still has to herd cattle to help the family scrape by.

Standing in the yard at Loya Primary School, she showed off a large name tag reading "meteorologist" — one of the individual responsibilities assigned to each of the 25 pupils in her second-chance classroom in the Sidama region.

"It might rain today," she said earnestly, explaining that her classmates had jobs ranging from plant carer to newsreader.

Children enrolled in the 10-month speed school programme cover the same learning outcomes as others would in the first three years of school — and eventually rejoin mainstream classes in the fourth grade.

"We really work with the most vulnerable children at the margins, who have been denied the chance to learn," said Caitlin Baron, founder and chief executive of Luminos Fund, the education charity behind the accelerated schooling programme.

"The government has done its part in order to make education access possible. But ... the system is so stretched (that) when children are at the margins ... there's no practical way for the government schooling system to actually provide remediation and give children a second chance," Baron continued.

Still, access to education has improved significantly in Ethiopia over the past two decades with primary school net enrollment tripling between 2000 and 2016, according to the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF.

Four years ago, the government began replicating the Luminos Fund's model and more than 200,000 children were attending state- and partner-funded speed school classes in 2020.

But amid a civil war, drought, and floods, school enrollment has stagnated. Some 3.2 million children of primary-school-age were out of school in 2020, said Yohannes Wogasso, director general of school improvement at the Ministry of Education.

Girls are often kept at home to help with chores or married off, while boys mainly work in the fields in the nation of 115 million, where about 16 million children work.

A facilitator corrects an exercise for pupils in a second chance classroom in Sidama region, Ethiopia. October 26, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Emeline Wuilbercq

'Back Into the System'

Launched about a decade ago in Ethiopia, the Luminos programme has helped some 130,000 vulnerable children aged about 10 access education with a curriculum focused on play and songs to prepare them to transition back into government schools.

Some of the children have never been to school, others like Genet dropped out early.

Singing, playing instruments, and clapping their hands, children divided into groups of five smiled and laughed as they recited the syllables of the Sidama language in one second-chance classroom.

Located in government primary schools, the classrooms are bright and decorated with banners, each one has a model shop and bank. In one corner, the letters of the alphabet, handmade in clay, are on display.

"For children who've been in a labouring environment, that sense of empowerment, that sense of safety that comes from being in a warm, welcoming classroom is a powerful entry point back into the school system," Baron said.

Prolonged and repeated school closures during the past two years due to COVID-19 have resulted in increased drop-out rates, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable children according to the UN cultural agency, UNESCO.

Even before the pandemic struck, 59 million children of primary school age were missing out on their education globally — most of them in Africa.

Ethiopian schools closed in March last year and reopened gradually from October 2020, with dropout rates lower than initially feared, according to data gathered by the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) programme, a global research project.

Pauline Rose, international research team lead on the RISE Ethiopia team and professor of international education at the University of Cambridge, said speed schools could help children catch up on lost learning.

"Accelerated education learning programmes are vital to address both those who are out of school and learning loss for those who are still in school, but at risk of not remaining there," she said.

A facilitator teaches numbers to pupils in a second chance classroom in Sidama Region, Ethiopia. October 26, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Emeline Wuilbercq

Progressing Faster

Alemayehu Hailu Gebre, Ethiopia director for the Luminos Fund, which also operates in Lebanon and Liberia, said all government schools should have at least one second-chance classroom to cater for older children.

Research conducted by the Centre for International Education at the University of Sussex found that six years after completing the programme, three-quarters of the students were still in school and progressing faster than their peers.

But despite the government's push to expand the model, officials say there are limitations that must be addressed.

"This programme is designed only for children who are over-age, and who also have some time to attend a daily programme," said Yohannes, adding that officials were trying to adapt it to target hard-to-reach groups such as nomadic herdsmen.

Rose said the huge number of children in need of speed schools was also a major challenge in Ethiopia.

"Reaching this number will require a large number of facilitators with relevant training," she said.

Alem, another 12-year-old girl attending a second-chance classroom, said she dreams of becoming a doctor one day.

For now, however, Alem — whose name has also been changed — still has to clean and cook when she gets home from school.

"We're trying to reduce the workload and help her. We understand she's now busy studying," said Hamaro Hanka, an acquaintance of Alem's parents who offered her board and lodging in exchange for domestic work when his wife died. "She has served us already as much as she could so I want to give her an opportunity."

(Reporting by Emeline Wuilbercq; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org) Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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