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After a successful completion of the Catch Up pilot project in 2017, USAID and the University of Cape Town have commissioned VVOB through J-PAL Africa to mainstream the ‘Teaching at the Right Level’ approach in two provinces in Zambia. With Catch Up, the Zambian Ministry of General Education, VVOB and partners aim to improve pupils’ basic literacy and numeracy skills in the country.


In 2014, a national assessment of literacy and numeracy of primary school students in Zambia brought to light some disconcerting figures: nearly 1 in 7 grade 2 learners were unable to read a single word in their local language, and 30 per cent of Grade 5 learners were illiterate with poor math skills.

One of the underlying reasons for this learning challenge is the size of class groups. Large classrooms contain large variations of learning levels. Learners that fall behind never have the chance to catch up in big heterogeneous groups. These pupils are most vulnerable to demotivation and eventual dropout, negatively impacting their future.

Teaching at the right level

The Ministry of General Education in Zambia is committed to improving the learning outcomes in literacy and numeracy of all its primary students in grades 3 to 5. With the support of J-PAL Africa, Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), Pratham, UNICEF, USAID and VVOB Zambia, the government piloted ‘Catch Up’ in eighty schools in 2017.

Two different models of ‘Teaching at the Right Level’ (TaRL), a remedial education approach pioneered by the Indian NGO Pratham, were tested in the Catch Up pilot project. After successful completion, the Ministry identified its preferred model: for one hour during the school day for two terms, teachers regrouped children in grades 3, 4 and 5 based on performance instead of age or grade and focussed on basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Longstanding partnership

The successful completion of the pilot moved the Ministry to scale up Catch Up to approximately 1,800 schools over the next three years. The project ‘Teaching at the right level in Africa: creating pathways to scale’ in Zambia is funded by USAID and coordinated by J-PAL Africa – an organisation based at the University of Cape Town – in partnership with the Zambian Ministry of General Education and with technical support from UNICEF. VVOB will provide support for the scale up for at least two years, reaching 1,200 schools.

In the pilot phase, VVOB had an implementing role at the level of teachers and schools. However, in the scale-up, VVOB operates as a capacity developer of government staff. As VVOB has a longstanding partnership with the Ministry in Zambia on top of experience with Catch Up, it is an important partner of J-PAL in taking the project to the next level.

Mentoring the mentor

In other words, VVOB’s main responsibility in J-PAL’s project is to infuse TaRL in the regular activities of the Zambian Ministry at all levels, and institutionalise the approach.

VVOB will not support schools directly, but has taken up the role as ‘mentor of the mentor’. Government staff of different levels – be it provincial, district or zonal – are the key implementers of Catch Up. These crucial actors will mentor and coach school leaders and teachers in the integration of TaRL. VVOB Zambia will strengthen the government staff by developing their capacity in their role as mentor. VVOB will also ensure an information flow to the top staff within the Ministry of General Education.