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The PAL Network Case: Citizen-led Assessments to Improve Learning

Source: Adapted from Plaut & Jamieson Eberhardt (2015) and consultations with PAL Network members.

Understanding What Works in Oral Reading Assessments, a new e-book from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, draws on the first-hand experiences of donors, implementers and practitioners across 60 developing countries. Oral reading assessments, which measure early reading ability, are attracting growing interest from policy makers and spurring civil society organizations to collect large data-sets managed by citizens every year. These assessments not only provide great feedback in the form of reliable data sets on enrollment and learning ability but also create accountability at local and national levels by incorporating voice and contributions from citizens. A chapter from the e-book, “Expanding Citizen Voice in Education System Accountability: Evidence from the Citizen-led Learning Assessment Movement”, highlights how citizen-led campaigns gathering evidence are influencing governance and accountability at the community, provincial and national levels. It also shares case studies from nine countries (where these initiatives are being currently implemented) and illustrates how the evidence that has been generated is playing a role in bringing change in local reforms and efforts for improving learning at national and sub-national levels.


The People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network brings together seven civil society organizations working across thirteen countries (Pakistan, India, Senegal, Mexico, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Mali, Cameron, Mozambique, Bangladesh ) — and growing —  to assess the basic reading and numeracy competencies of all children, in their homes, through annual citizen-led assessments.[1] The PAL Network was established in July 2015 by member organizations that had been conducting this unique measurement. The network aspires to expand its efforts to ensure that children’s learning is at the centre of all education endeavours. The network offers an opportunity for citizen-led assessments to leverage experimentation and learning across many contexts to better understand the ways in which these processes can strengthen local accountability and relationships for improving the quality of education in developing countries. 


Now headed by a common secretariat (PAL Network), citizen-led assessments have played an important role in reorienting the global education agenda through their assessment findings which have now been widely cited and used to support discussions on learning (Bangay, 2015). By producing data that, over a 10-year period, repeatedly highlighted the severity of the learning crisis in children’s foundational skills, citizen-led assessments have provided evidence that have helped to make the case for an inclusive and equitable life-long learning for all goal within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the 193-member UN General Assembly in September 2015.


One important feature of citizen-led assessments is that they directly engage parents and children – who are typically actors with the lowest resources – to become more empowered in seeking the attention of policymakers and service providers and hence, improve their negotiating power. These assessments are based on following a very simple yet effective premise of building citizen pressure to hold the education system accountable in the case of dissatisfactory performance. Building citizen pressure is achieved through both the long and short route of accountability, as per a five- stage Theory of Change, which was developed by the PAL Network and underlies the conduct of the CLAs:

1.     Collect evidence on the learning levels of children

Each of the organizations implementing citizen-led assessments work with a network of partners across their respective countries to mobilize and train volunteers in the use of a very simple tool for effectively measuring children’s basic reading and math levels. Citizen volunteers then visit households in a sample of villages and test every child within a given age range.


2.     Communicate findings

Considerable emphasis is placed on the communication of findings, fostering informed public understanding of and debate on children’s learning, and identifying what can be done to address learning gaps. The results are also widely disseminated through national and local media. In many cases, organizations also work at a local level to share findings with parents and communities during the assessment process itself and/or afterwards through local gatherings that often include local elected officials, education officers, teachers and community members.


3.     Mobilize communities for accountability and action

The information is used to engage community and youth leaders, parents and others to take actions to improve learning on their own and through working with their local schools and leaders to advocate for change.


4.     Advocate for government action to improve learning

Similarly, the information is used to engage directly with national and sub-national policymakers to encourage the government to take steps to improve learning outcomes. In many cases, organizations work collaboratively with governments to offer solutions.


5.     Re-set the education agenda to focus on learning

Over time, the results are used to highlight trends and persistent gaps to make the case for global and country-level goals, targets and indicators related to learning outcomes. This process of consensus building around global priorities is believed to focus donor and national government resource allocations, policies and programme interventions, and to create a universal accountability framework for tracking progress.


Moving forward, citizen-led assessments have a unique role to play in tracking progress for three reasons:

1) They are independent of government assessments;

2) They capture learning for all children, not just those enrolled in school; and

3) They measure progress on early learning outcomes that are critical for children’s future success.


In light of the SDGs, PAL Network hopes to become a powerful force in the push for “learning for all” to take precedence over “schooling for all” in global agenda-setting conversations.


[1] Pratham started the movement with the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) in 2005. Subsequently many more joined the movement; Idara-e-Taleen-o-Aagahi (ITA) that implements  (ASER) Pakistan,; Uwezo in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania; Oeuvre Malienne d'Aide à l'Enfance du Sahel that implements Beekunko in Mali; and the Laboratoire de Recherche sur les Transformations Économiques et Sociales at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop that implements Jangandoo in Senegal are unique citizen led initiatives working to strengthen accountability at national and local level for delivering quality education


Written by: Sehar Saeed,[at], Program Manager (ASER Pakistan, ITA)

Related links:

1. PAL Network 

2. Report: Bringing Learning to Light: The Role of Citizen-led Assessments in Shifting the Education Agenda

3 . ASER Pakistan