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May 22, 2020 Friday 01:33:28 PM IST

First-generation learners being left behind in global education

Teacher Insights

'First-generation learners' - a substantial number of pupils around the world who represent the first generation in their families to receive an education - are also significantly more likely to leave school without basic literacy or numeracy skills, a study suggests. Research by academics at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, Addis Ababa University and the Ethiopian Policy Studies Institute, examined the progress of thousands of students in Ethiopia, including a large number of 'first-generation learners': children whose parents never went to school. The numbers of such pupils have soared in many low and middle-income countries in recent decades, as access to education has widened. Primary school enrolment in Ethiopia, for example, has more than doubled since 2000, thanks to a wave of government education investment and reforms. But the new study found that first-generation learners are much more likely to underperform in Maths and English, and that many struggle to progress through the school system.

The findings, published in the Oxford Review of Education, suggest that systems like Ethiopia's - which a generation ago catered mainly to the children of an elite minority - urgently need to adapt to prioritise the needs of first-generation learners, who often face greater disadvantages than their contemporaries. Around 12% of the entire dataset that includes those in school were first-generation learners. The researchers found that first-generation learners often come from more disadvantaged backgrounds than other pupils: for example, they are more likely to live further from school, come from poorer families, or lack access to a home computer. Regardless of their wider circumstances, however, first-generation learners were also consistently more likely to underperform at school.

The authors argue that a widespread failure to consider the disadvantages faced by first-generation learners may, in part, explain why many low and middle-income countries are experiencing a so-called 'learning crisis' in which attainment in literacy and numeracy remains poor, despite widening access to education. While this is often blamed on issues such as large class sizes or poor-quality teaching, the researchers say that it may have more to do with a surge of disadvantaged children into systems that, until recently, did not have to teach as many pupils from these backgrounds. They suggest that many teachers may need extra training to help these pupils, who are often less well-prepared for school than those from more educated (and often wealthier) families. Curricula, assessment systems and attainment strategies may also need to be adapted to account for the fact that, in many parts of the world, the mix of students at primary school is now far more diverse than a generation ago.

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