Adolescent education and learning in Ethiopia

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By Nicola Jones, Elizabeth Presler-Marshall, Joan Hicks, Sarah Baird, Workneh Yadete, and Tassew Woldehanna

Executive summary


Ethiopia has made remarkable progress in expanding access to education over the past two decades. The budget allocated to education has doubled, and with greatly expanded primary school facilities and increasing parent and student commitment to education, the country is close to universal primary enrolment. However, significant hurdles remain. Dropout rates are high, with only about half of young people completing grade 5, and the enrolment rate in upper-secondary school still in single digits due to lagging investment in secondary schools. Rates are particularly low for girls, who face greater time poverty due to care and domestic work responsibilities. Moreover, learning outcomes are generally poor (especially in rural areas) and adolescents with disabilities have limited opportunities to realise their right to an education.

This report on adolescent education and learning is one of a series of short reports presenting findings from baseline mixed-methods research as part of the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) longitudinal study (2015–2024). We focus on adolescents’ perceptions of and experiences with accessing education and learning services in Ethiopia, paying particular attention to gender and regional differences, as well as those between adolescents with disabilities and those without. We also discuss the range of change strategies currently being implemented to fast-track social change, as well as the related gaps in the policy and programming landscape.

Research methodology

In Ethiopia, our research sample involves a survey with more than 6,800 adolescent girls and boys from two cohorts aged 10–12 years (younger adolescents) and 15–17 years (older adolescents), and more in-depth qualitative research with 240 adolescents and their families. The baseline data was collected in selected sites in Afar, Amhara and Oromia regional states and Dire Dawa city administration during 2017 and 2018. The sample includes some of the most disadvantaged adolescents (adolescents with disabilities, married girls and adolescent mothers, adolescents from pastoralist and remote rural communities, adolescents from internally displaced households and child-headed households). Three subsequent rounds of data collection will be carried out in 2019/2020, 2020/21 and 2022/23 with the younger cohort when they reach 12–14 years, 13–15 years and 15– 17 years, and with the older cohort at 17–19 years, 18–20 years and 20–22 years. The main qualitative research will happen at the same junctures, but we will also undertake peer-to-peer and participatory research from late 2018/ early 2019 onwards on an annual basis to explore peer networks and the experiences of the most marginalised adolescents in more depth.

Key findings

  • Educational aspirations: While there are marked differences between study sites due to context, overall, adolescents’ educational aspirations are high. Our survey found that the majority want to attend post-secondary school, and both our qualitative and quantitative work found that many aspire to professional careers.

  • Parental support for education: Parental support appears to be growing intergenerationally; most parents reported that formal education is important for their children’s futures and that they aspire for their children to attend post-secondary education. However, there is some evidence that sons are still prioritised over daughters when it comes to education, with girls unable to devote as much time to studying as boys because of greater demands on their labour at home.

  • Educational access: Adolescents – especially rural adolescents – face a number of hurdles in terms of their access to education. While nearly all adolescents (with the important exception of some pastoralist communities and adolescents with disabilities) had been enrolled in primary school, our qualitative work found that those most at risk of dropout are those that enrolled late. Poor attendance, driven by responsibilities for paid and unpaid work, can lead to having to repeat grades, which means that as young people enter adolescence, continued enrolment becomes more difficult in the upper-primary years. Hurdles are almost universally higher for girls, especially because they are at risk of being pushed or pulled into child marriage; but boys are also vulnerable as opportunities for paid work pull them out of school.

  • Quality of education: Our qualitative study participants report that learning outcomes are low, particularly in rural areas. Contributing factors include overcrowded, poorly resourced classrooms, teachers who do not have access to training on child-friendly pedagogies and instead rely on violent discipline to control student behaviour, and lack of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities.

  • Educational transitions: Adolescents’ transitions into secondary school are complicated by the reality that many rural students face long daily commutes or must board in town, as the scale-up of secondary schooling lags behind that of primary schooling. The draw of the cash economy further hinders transitions for both boys and girls. For girls, poor learning outcomes (driven by parents’ demands on their time) and child marriage represent additional barriers to higher education.

Change strategies

The government is working with donors and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) to implement a wide variety of strategies, most of which have revolved around improving access to primary school and raising community awareness about the importance of education – especially for girls. Strategies targeting quality are overall less advanced in their implementation than those targeting access.

Policy and programming implications

Our mixed-methods research findings point to a number of priorities for policy, programming and practice:

  • Support adolescents’ educational aspirations: Adolescents need to be exposed to both practical and aspirational futures – and provided adult guidance to think about the types of support they need to realise their aspirations. Our findings further highlight the value of young people being introduced to a variety of local role models, including those who have taken nontraditional pathways in terms of gender.

  • Intensify awareness-raising efforts – and education – aimed at parents: Invest in messaging that simultaneously emphasises the importance of education and offers parents practical guidance on how parents can support their children’s – and particularly their daughters’ – education. Door-to-door efforts to ensure that children are attending school, carried out throughout the school year if necessary, should be paired with warnings and monetary or in-kind fines to ensure compliance.

  • Reconceptualise access to education: Schools need to be staffed with decently remunerated, trained teachers, be adequately furnished and appropriately resourced, including educational materials, school feeding, WASH facilities and specialised support for adolescents with disabilities. Expanding evening schools in urban areas and, over time, in rural areas, will also support adolescents who have to balance paid and unpaid work responsibilities to pursue further education. In Zone 5 (Afar), and remote rural communities in other regions, where distances keep many students from progressing, the government should consider aligning the school calendar to the agricultural calendar and at secondary level expanding free or heavily subsidised boarding schools.

  • Focus on learning outcomes: Children’s learning should be tracked from the earliest years – rather than simply measured via 8th grade exams given that failure at this juncture in adolescents’ schooling can shut off entire pathways for future skills-building, and students should not be promoted before they have mastered content.
    Tutorials should also be provided to students who are regularly absent or at risk of falling behind to help them catch up, and offered at flexible hours that are matched to girls’ schedules.

  • Teacher violence needs to be urgently addressed: In the short-term, there should be an immediate end to punishment for ‘mistakes’ such as lateness and poor retention, which are often beyond students’ – and particularly girls’ – control. Over time, teachers need to be trained in non-violent disciplinary approaches and robust monitoring and reporting systems put in place to hold teachers accountable to Ethiopia’s policy against corporal punishment.

  • Student violence and harassment needs to be urgently addressed: Awareness-raising to tackle bullying and sexual harassment, and communication and negotiation skills building needs to be integrated into the curriculum and reinforced through school clubs so as to promote non-violent communication and behaviour among students.

  • Target transitions: Target students and parents with outreach efforts that emphasise growth and potential, and the longer-term advantages of secondary and post-secondary education. Ensure that students with disabilities are provided with the support that they need to stay in school as they transition into mainstream classroom, including through trained teaching assistants to support mainstream class teachers.

  • Support secondary education: A multi-pronged package – including building more schools and providing economic and logistical support needs to be scaled up to meet demand, with care taken to prioritise girls’ gender needs given the multiple disadvantages they face.

Read the full report and policy note