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Armando Ali on assessing learning in Mozambique and the power of citizen action
Episode 1711th November 2022 • The RISE Podcast • Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE)
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In this episode, RISE partnerships manager and co-producer of the RISE podcast Joe Bullough speaks to Armando Ali, CEO of the People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network—a South-South network of organisations working to conduct citizen-led assessments of learning to empower citizens and spur political action to improve learning. Armando revisits memories of school in Nampula, Mozambique and reflects on (one generation later) what he learned from the first citizen-led assessment of children’s learning in Mozambique, and the “Wiixutta Nithweelaka” (“Learn by Play”) programme to help children catch up on missed foundational skills. They discuss why literacy and numeracy are important indicators of whether education systems are working to give children value in their education, and the power and potential of community action to drive learning outcomes worldwide, village to village.


Guest biography

Armando Ali

Armando Ali is the Chief Executive Officer at the PAL Network where he provides overall leadership, nurtures a sense of collective ownership and belonging within the network and ensures sustained growth, health and impact. Armando is an Education Specialist with over 20 years of experience in mobilizing citizens to improve the quality of education. He is passionate about improving foundational literacy and numeracy skills of children in the early grades and, since 2001, has held a variety of leadership roles in civil society and academia, advocating for the right of quality education for all children.

Before joining PAL Network, he worked as an education specialist with UNICEF, Mozambique. He also previously worked as the coordinator of Mozambique’s Citizen-led Action, Wiixutta Nithweelaka – an approach inspired by Teaching at the Right Level that helps children to improve their reading and arithmetic competencies. He holds a Master’s degree in Peace and Development Work from Linnaeus University in Sweden. 

Joe Bullough

Joe Bullough is the Partnerships Manager for the RISE Programme and a co-producer of the RISE podcast, based at the Blavantik School of Government at the University of Oxford. 

Joe manages RISE’s engagement with global partners, and facilitates relationships internally across the RISE network. He also leads RISE’s practitioner-focused work through the RISE Community of Practice. Prior to RISE, Joe was a consultant to the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, and also worked as a programme officer for the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation, an intergovernmental agency set up to support the development of education, culture and sciences in the Southeast Asian region. He holds a master's degree in education policy and management from the Danish School of Education (Danmarks Paedagogiske Universitet) in Copenhagen. 


RISE is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Programme is implemented through a partnership between Oxford Policy Management and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. The Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford supports the production of the RISE Podcast.

Producers: Joseph Bullough and Katie Cooper

Audio Editing: James Morris


Joe Bullough 0:04

Hello and welcome to the RISE Podcast. I'm Joe Bullough, partnerships manager at RISE and a co-producer of the RISE podcast. And today I'm speaking to Armando Ali. Armando is CEO of the PAL Network, a South South partnership of organizations working across three continents to collect data on learning with the goal of spurring system and political action. PAL Network is also an active member of the RISE Community of Practice, a group of implementers looking to share lessons and experiences about how to address the learning crisis. We talk about a whole lot in this episode, from Armando's memories as a child in Nampula, Mozambique to a generation later, what he learned from piloting Mozambique's first citizen-led assessment of learning in the same location. Reflecting on this, he talks about why success in literacy and numeracy are important indicators of whether education systems are working to give children value in their education, and the potential of community action to drive learning outcomes worldwide, from village to village. Welcome, Armando. It's great to have you with us.

Armando Ali 1:08

Thank you very much for inviting me. It's such a pleasure to be part of this conversation.

Joe Bullough 1:14

I have to say, I've been really looking forward to this. Perhaps we can kick off by you telling us a little about the story of your journey to focus on education and improving education systems. What What drove this initial passion?

Armando Ali 1:27

sit on his benches. So until:

Joe Bullough 8:22

Wow, well thank you for sharing on that amazing journey and story. Theoretically, you would assume that education will improve through time. So that's a very poignant sort of juxtaposition that you realized that children were struggling, more so than perhaps you observed, children were and you were who, through schooling, many years in the past. So this is actually a really nice segue to, to my next question as well, which is that you previously worked as the coordinator of Mozambique's first citizen-led assessment, and an approach, which was inspired by Pratham's teaching at the right level, can you tell us the story of what drove that endeavor?

Armando Ali 9:09

tricts of Nampula province in:

Joe Bullough:

Thank you so much for sharing that, Armando. And it's a very sobering statistic that just 2 out of 10 children in Nampula could read for meaning and very worrying. But this also could be more widely representative of the national situation and in Mozambique too it's interesting to hear how important you found foundational literacy and numeracy was as an indicator of whether inputs were working effectively in a system to produce learning. And also realising that Mozambique wasn't an isolated case and this was happening in other places as well. And I think one other really important takeaway from what you shared is that improvements in foundational literacy and numeracy are possible. In actual fact, quite quickly, in 50 days, as you said, you can make progress. And I think often we hear a lot of people say that it's very difficult in education, because it takes time to see the results of investments. And it takes time for learning to take place and children to move through school and progress. But in actual fact, literacy is something that's very tangible. And it's possible to make improvements and it's actually quite quickly. So it's very encouraging to hear about these results, and that you found that. I want to pick up on foundational literacy and numeracy a little bit more, because you mentioned previously that foundational literacy and numeracy in the global south is a concern. And ensuring that children can read and do basic arithmetic is a critical and often missing component enabling children to succeed. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you meant by this? And perhaps the sort of change that you'd like to see? You talked a little bit about this and the approach that you employed in Mozambique, but it'd be great to hear a little bit more about it.

Armando Ali:

Yeah. If you see the recent reports from UNICEF, from UNESCO, you will find that they all agree that we have, for instance, 1 out of 5 children in Africa out of school. And if you ask why. The reason is no more because the school is very far away. We do have more and more schools closer to where people are, we do have more and more teachers and the teacher pupil ratio has decreased. Let's say significantly, although the problems is still very big. But from our point of departure, we can see improvements on all inputs to education. But why are still children out of school? One of the reasons is because they don't see the value of spending their time going into that building every day. And when they look back, and they ask themselves, what am I doing, they struggle to get responses to that. If you see a small boy in a village, like where I was born, at the age of eight or nine, he already joins his friends to go fishing at the age of 12, most of times, he can be responsible for bringing food home. So for that child, going to school is a waste of time, because he doesn't see any added value for him. And he will invest his time where he feels that his contribution to the society and to his family is better. If he goes fishing, he will have drinks or 7 or 10 fishes that will be the meal of the family for one or two days. And he will feel much more proud because he's making a contribution to his family's subsistence. So if they don't understand the value of going to school, they will drop out at the age of 10. At the age of 12, or as soon as they realise that there is something else that I can do that will give me more value to my society than just going to school and doing nothing. So it's not just creating the condition for children to read and do basic maths. The wonder of investing on the foundations is to give a reason for children to understand. Why am I going to school is also to give the parents reasons to understand why are they spending the few resources they have investing in the education of their children? What is the added value that it will bring if that child, a girl child, a boy child, comes back to school and reads something to the parents and the parents can hear, can follow their attention to education, change their attention to education change. If they can come with a receipt from the hospital, and the child can help to read and explain to the parents or they say that you need to buy paracetamol. And then you need to take one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Oh, he can read a package of biscuits and explain the composition of this package and how you can prepare the meal using this package. The parents will understand the value of education. But if that doesn't happen, it's a waste of time, both for the parents and for the child.

Joe Bullough:

I think that's such an important point, Armando. And it's also a point that a recent RISE paper by one of my colleagues, Michelle Kaffenberger and her co authors make as part of a mixed method study they did, which looked at the reasons for dropout among students. And in poor countries, India, Peru, Ethiopia and Vietnam, their finding was that there are lots of reasons why students drop out. But one of the key reasons that is often missed is that children drop out because they're not progressing in their learning and education in school. They're not seeing value from their time in school. And so they're making very reasonable judgments and saying, well, if I'm not actually getting any value for my schooling experience, and not progressing in my education, and not being able to do what I'm supposed to be able to do, then looking at other ways to bring value to their families and to their own lives. And so that's also a reason. So low learning is itself also a reason why children dropout. I want to now move to your more recent work upon and now as CEO of PAL, you champion South South coalition of organisations collecting data on learning levels to bring about political and system action. What recent work by PAL Network members excite you? And what are some of the achievements that you've seen at country level? And I'd also really like to hear a little bit about what your aspirations are for PAL Network, and what role you see it playing in the coming years.

Armando Ali:

My move from Facilidade, a citizen led assessment in Mozambique, to the PAL Network was a big shift at a personal level. But it was also a big shift organisational level. When I look at our network, as a whole, and you will know we started as a movement of citizens in different parts of the world, in the Americas, in Africa, in Asia, doing citizen led assessment, just going household to household asking if our children are learning, and also discussing the findings with their local governments. But we realised also that this was not an individual problem, this was a global crisis. So the best way to respond was also to have a collective voice on that. And all reports also recognise that although this is a global crisis, this affects Africa the most, this affects South Asia the most, this affects the global south the most. So if we have citizens, if we can come together, and voice it together, we may have a better contribution to the debate, we may have a better contribution in the process of building solutions for this problem. So PAL Network is not just a network of solidarity, in terms of, we all have same problems, but it's becoming a network of engineering solutions together. So one of things that I really like is our recent move to develop common tools, common assessment tools, that can produce evidences that are comparable among different countries. And that can help us to voice better together. The idea of development of ICAN international comparable assessment on numeracy. And now, the development of ELANA the early language, literacy and numeracy assessment. Those tools can be used in all global south. And they can produce evidences that can be comparable across different geographies that are mapped to global processes frameworks, and that can be used to report against SDG 4.1.2. So the idea of having one common tool is very, very, let's say, encouraging for me, and I'm very happy to be now leading the process of running next year, the first large scale assessment in 15 countries of the global south using common tools to produce data that can be comparable, and that can be used to speak at global level about the situation in all our member countries. And more so is not just for us, our tools are public goods, and we will be very happy to support any other country who is interested to use these tools and produce evidences, and we can map together and we can voice it together. The second thing that really makes me feel happy is at some time that we have started producing evidences together, we have also started produce solutions together. And we are doing that with "My Village". My Village is a concept that we started this year that takes a holistic approach to the village. And the objective of my village is to ensure that in a specific village where we are, all children can read and do basic maths. So what we are doing in my village is to combine different solutions together and offer a menu of alternative ways of supporting all children in one specific village. If we could start from small, let's say, at the village level, and we engage citizens, teachers, local authorities, youth, and we say we have a problem here, we have many children who cannot read, let's come together and in the next 40 days, 50 days, we solve this problem together. No child will be found in this village who cannot read, no child, school age child, will be found here that cannot do these commands. So we are already doing this in three countries in Kenya, in Tanzania and in Nepal. But we would like to expand to many other countries. And by 2026/2027, we can say we have 1 million villages in the global south where all children can read and do basic maths. So when I look to PAL Network, what I would like to see is a network that is building evidence together, building solutions together, and voicing together. And by voicing together, I mean, see, PAL Network data that is produced in the global south by global south people being the reference of learning outcomes in the global south. And I do think that no one else is better positioned to produce those evidences than us. Because we are here where the problem is most felt. We are here where our children are the most left behind. And as we field the problem, we should also be part of the solution of that problem.

Joe Bullough:

I think that that's a really inspiring vision, and a call to the whole sector, I think to work with communities on both data and solutions. I also really love the flipped approach you mentioned, because I think there's a tendency to think about bringing about change in education and education systems from the top down, right? You think well, okay, we're going to put this policy reform into effect, and then we'll go to scale that way. But I really love the idea of flipping the model totally. And focusing on the village first and the community first, and then saying, well, if we can have success here in this one village, then it's possible to have greater success scaling some of those lessons in other villages, as well. And I really liked that model too. Now for the question we ask on every episode of the RISE podcast, what is one thing that you wish other people knew about the education system in Mozambique? Or it can be about education systems broadly as well.

Armando Ali:

One thing that I would like people to know is that from my experience in working at school level with teachers, my concern is not only on what happens when children are out of school. My concern has shifted. My concern is what happens when children are in school with teachers. Why is it a concern for me? Because I have seen teachers with strong difficulties with big challenges in doing basic operations. Teachers who struggle to read, teachers who struggle to explain subtraction. I have seen myself, teachers making mistakes to make an a simple operation. Hey, simple here's 16 minus 8. I have seen it myself and asking that teacher three times, four times, how would you explain a child: How is 16 minus 8. And the teacher had no clue on how to do it. So it's, of course, I'm not generalising. And this is not applied for all teachers. But when you have 30% or 35% of teachers with those kinds of challenges, you can imagine how many children will also face the same challenge. So there is a need to invest on a College of Teachers, there is a need to invest on the instructions. And to really focus on the learning outcomes. Again, the most important is not to see a number of children within a building with a man or a woman in front of them, wearing a white uniform, and holding a stick on the role of teacher. That is not the most important, the most important is what our children are taking out of it. The second is not just about Mozambique, I will say it's globally, I think we are still underestimating the power of citizens. We are still building solutions based on the same number of schools that we have in the country, on the same number of teachers that we have in the country. I was reading a report yesterday from UNICEF, that says that, if we keep this pace, we will need 7 years to recover from the learning losses in literacy, and 11 years to recover from learning losses in numeracy. Are we going to wait? Are we going to wait those seven years to solve this problem? If we still deal with the solutions on the same school system that we have globally, on same number of teachers and in some bureaucratic systems that we are in this problem clearly will be solved. We need to have courage to call the society, to call the citizen and say, look, these are the children that we have in the school. But we know that there are many other who are not here today, please go call them, we will sit together. And we will work with these children in the next three or four months, at least to build their foundations of reading and mathematics. And if one teacher alone cannot do that, other citizens in the community who can read and do basic maths can help. And that will not be a let's say, you don't need to integrate them all in the school system. Now, we do need them to solve the crisis. After you have built the foundations, then teachers will continue their work normally. So those are the two things that I would like to share about where I think we should pay more attention. And as we build the solutions, maybe some thoughts to consider.

Joe Bullough:

What a great call to action. And I think two great points to end on as well. One, not judging our success by the number of children in school, but the value they're taking from it, and what they're learning and to the power of harnessing citizens and community, involving them in engaging them to support kids, children, teachers, through their schooling to get that value. Thank you so much for joining us, Armando. It's been a real pleasure and I've really enjoyed the conversation and hope to speak again soon.

Armando Ali:

Thank you very much for this opportunity. As I said it's really a privilege to be here and to share with you lessons from our work. I really think that if we come together, we can solve this crisis, but it will need some courage and some unusual decisions like mobilising the entire society, the entire community, the entire village. Thank you.

Joe Bullough:

Thank you for listening to our podcast today. And if you liked it, be sure to check out our research at or follow us on social media @RISEProgramme. You can find links to the research mentioned and other workshops under the description for this podcast episode. The RISE podcast is brought to you by the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme through support from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.