MoGE’s office of standards and curriculum was particularly keen to adapt the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach, championing the idea within the Ministry and also with a number of development agencies. J-PAL Africa supported this process by targeting key development actors, such as UNICEF, DFID and USAID, sharing evidence on TaRL and discussing how it could be helpfully applied in the Zambian context. Critically, the J-PAL Africa team, part of which would go on to form the TaRL Africa team with Pratham, believed that the entire process needed to be owned and managed by the key system actor, in this case MoGE, with J-PAL and Pratham providing insights and technical assistance, not driving the decision-making. With MoGE firmly in charge, an important first move was for the Ministry to organize a working group of main education partners, including UNICEF, DfID, now the Foreign Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO), the British Council, and Innovations for Poverty Action Zambia. This group, under MoGE leadership, hatched the plans for a pilot of what the Ministry branded the Catch Up program. The funds for the 80-school pilot were also sourced by the Ministry from the Global Partnership for Education with additional support from UNICEF and J-PAL’s Government Partnership Initiative (GPI). The Ministry also partnered with VVOB – education for development for additional implementation support during the pilot.
The pilot was implemented in 80 schools in 2016-2017 and proved significant in a number of ways. First, it confirmed that the majority of Grade 3 to 5 learners in Zambia were lacking basic reading and mathematics skills, with more than half of children in Grades 3 to 5 in Catch Up pilot schools at baseline unable to read words. The process evaluation results found that the program was well implemented, which is essential in establishing its feasibility. Government monitoring largely occurred as planned, teachers stuck to the key principles of TaRL, and they continued to implement the program over time. Critically, learning outcomes improved markedly during the one-year pilot period. According to the government data, the share of children who could not even read a letter fell by 25 percentage points from 33% to 8% during the pilot period, and the share of children reading with basic proficiency (a simple paragraph or a story) grew by 18 percentage points from 34% to 52%. In arithmetic, the share of students in the beginner group (who could not even complete two-digit addition sums) fell by 16 percentage points from 44% to 28% and the share of students with basic proficiency (able to complete two-digit subtraction) rose by 18 percentage points from 32% to 50%.
The Ministry decided to expand the program after the pilot, based not only on positive results but also ease of implementation, since the pilot had been executed with and through the government’s own systems. Other development partners were also enthused by the outcomes of the carefully implemented learning-centered pilot and the Catch Up Program was awarded a grant by USAID Zambia to expand the program to reach 1800 schools (two provinces) over three years (2018-2020).
In 2020, the Ministry of General Education issued a letter on its plan to roll out Catch Up to the remaining eight Provinces. Following this, funding was secured for 8 of the 10 provinces from the LEGO Foundation, UNICEF, the Hempel Foundation, Co Impact, and the Belgian government (DGD). Emergency funding by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) during 2020 and 2021, which supported a COVID emergency response program to address the learning loss from COVID school closures, also supported expansion.