May 07, 2021

SEL in Context: Ethiopia

The Speed School approach

Professor Kwame Akyeampong, of the Open University in the UK, was interviewed by Margaret Sinclair and Andy Smart

“If you can get a textbook – which teachers and students are so familiar with – to be used differently, I think you have a big chance to really transform a school.”

View full transcript here.

Kwame Akyeampong is Professor of International Education and Development at the UK Open University, with over 25 years’ experience in Education Programme Evaluation, Teacher Education Policy Analysis, Education Access and Equity. He has conducted education review and evaluation studies for various Ministries of Education in sub-Saharan Africa. Kwame has led numerous international research and evaluation programmes and projects funded by international organizations, including the Mastercard Foundation, Geneva Global (USA), the Luminos Fund, JICA, and the World Bank. He served as a visiting professor at the Centre for International Cooperation in Education (CICE) in Hiroshima University and as a Senior Fulbright Scholar at Georgia State University in the USA. He also served for two years as a Senior Policy Analyst with the Global Education Monitoring Report team in UNESCO, Paris. Kwame was recently appointed an Honorary Professor of International Education and Development at the University of Sussex. He is a member of the World Bank and UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP).

First introduced a decade ago in southwest Ethiopia, Speed Schools provide a one-year accelerated learning program for children aged between the ages of 9 and 14 to re-integrate into grade 3 or 4 of government schools after just ten months of ‘accelerated’ learning instruction. Results have shown a considerable lasting effect on learning outcomes and confidence for Speed School children.

Based on the government curriculum, each Speed School lesson includes group work to develop creative presentations to the rest of the class. The schools operate eight hours a day with a half day on Saturdays, and attendance is high. Research has shown students do well, seemingly because they have “learned to learn” in the accelerated programme.

Professor Kwame Akyeampong, who has led research into the Speed Schools, describes the program in his paper in NISSEM Global Briefs 2020, noting that, as of 2016, some 3.7 million children had been through the program, with 96% integrating into a local government primary school.

We recently interviewed Professor Akyeampong for a book chapter being prepared by NISSEM[1]. He is excited by the way that teachers, often new to the profession, were able to facilitate student learning, using the textbooks in a new way. At certain times of day, “the classrooms are really a mixture of all kinds of things going on. It’s difficult to say, ‘This is how the lesson began, and this is the middle of the lesson, this is how it ended.’ I think that is something that was engrained in their training, It’s something they acquired.”

Teachers are mostly secondary school graduates and receive three weeks training in the Speed School approach, and are supported by coaching. The training “shifted the balance of responsibility away from them to the learners. I think this is very important... They did not see that they were the ones who were supposed to do everything. The principle was that you start with a topic, a theory, whatever it is, and then you get (the learners) in groups to reframe this and engage with it.”

The teacher has a copy of the textbooks for years 1–3, but few other resources. “They get things from outside … so that ideally the teacher doesn’t have to come with a lot of materials. The children are part of creating that environment. I think it’s an important principle, that children are resourceful. You have to trust that they can be creative, and the teacher has to let go and give them the space to do that.” This closeness to local resources is part of Professor Akyeampong’s philosophy: that the classroom process can draw on the natural behaviour of children in the African community, learning through observation, mutual interaction and the kind of “play” that happens in everyday life.

Many Speed Schools are attached to a primary school, with the hope of modelling new approaches for existing teachers. Can it be integrated into the formal school system? There would be resistance from teachers facing large classes and content-heavy textbooks. Ironically, however, teachers in formal schools like to receive Speed School students: “The teachers themselves say, ‘OK. Actually, this is quite powerful.’ Because the teachers in the government schools were really appreciative of the Speed School children, and they said, ‘Oh, we like them. Every child should go through a Speed School before they come to us.’ So, we said, ‘What is it that you see?’ They say, ‘Well, the Speed School children are more assertive, they engage.’ There are certain traits that they liked about the Speed School child, which they felt made the children ready for them to teach. I think that’s the thing we need to drill down and try to understand, and get teachers to begin to think that way.”

Asked about textbook reform, Professor Akyeampong suggests: “Start with a textbook and infuse social and emotional learning principles. Bring a bit more structure to this and take the bits that are good and throw out the bits that don’t work very well. I would say the textbook has to change, how it is written and how it is informed by the learning outcomes, rather than instructing the student to do A, B, C, D. How do we organize the learning so that learning takes place and learning outcomes are achieved? Those things have to come together in a way that I don’t think we yet have.”

He adds, “That’s why I like what you guys at NISSEM are doing in textbooks, because you cannotreplace them. The textbook is so important to the life of a child and a teacher in Africa. This is where the whole socialization of schooling and everything comes from. The textbook is central to this. If you can get a textbook – which teachers and students are so familiar with – to be used differently, I think you have a big chance to really transform a school and education in a way that other projects would not be able to do. But I still haven’t seen what this might look like.”


[1] Social and Emotional Learning in Action: Creating Systemic Change in Schools (Guilford Press, estimated publication date September 2022)

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