2.1 Introduction

Values and life skills are understood and defined differently in different contexts (Care, 2024, Joynes et al., 2019). A process initiated in East Africa by members of the Regional Education Learning Initiative (RELI) in 2018 explored the use of the different conceptualizations in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Umbrella terms such as twenty-first century skills, social-emotional learning competencies, transferable and transversal skills, soft skills, and whole child development competencies were explored. It was concluded that despite the perception of ‘life skills’ referring to the need to equip children with attitudes and behaviours to support the control of HIV-AIDS and substance use in several African contexts (Akyeampong, 2014), the term was also accepted in curriculum as referring to the more generic skills. Beyond the concept of skills was a set of personal attributes which constituted values. The RELI group then adopted life skills and values as the overall concept for use in their work in East Africa, and the Assessment of Life Skills and Values in East Africa (ALiVE) initiative was born.

This chapter reviews the use of learning assessments to influence policy. The review provides a context for ALiVE’s goals, the challenges it is designed to address, and how it addresses them to ensure children in East Africa acquire life skills and values to thrive in school and in life.

There is an increasingly identifiable link between these generic skills and work readiness that is considered urgent especially in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). According to the Global Employment Trends for Youth 2022 report (International Labor Organization, 2022), youth unemployment in Africa is below the world average for both men and women, with women at 13.3% and men at 12.3%, for a total average of 12.7% in 2022. The seemingly low levels of unemployment reflect the fact that most young people in SSA cannot afford to remain unemployed. What is often not reflected in the numbers is the quality of employment and the need to engage in insecure, often low-productivity, jobs for income (International Labor Organization, 2022). Many young people are engaged in informal jobs due to there being a lack of alternative options and little information and support with regard to other options. This is a cause for concern. The growing youth bulge presents an opportunity for future development of countries willing to tap into the so-called demographic dividend through investment in human capital. This investment would contribute to ensuring that young people develop the technical and socio-emotional skills and values necessary to become productive and contributing members of society (UK Aid, 2018). On the other hand, it is feared that if highly youthful societies do not take advantage of the demographic dividend, it may result in detrimental side-effects, exacerbating crime, violence, and continued poverty (UK Aid, 2018).

Recent studies in employability conducted in East Africa are showing that more effort is needed to invest in education and skills building of youth in the region. A study on perceptions of employability skills needed by employers and final year students from Higher Education Institutions in East Africa revealed a significant difference in prioritization of the employability skills between employers and final year students (Kalufya & Mwakajinga, 2016). Another study assessing perceptions of academics, employers, and civil servants regarding graduates’ employability skills in East Africa revealed general perceptions that graduates’ skills are insufficiently developed (Guardia et al., 2021). An Inter University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) survey polling employers across the region concluded that graduates lacked employability skills including technical mastery and basic work-related capabilities (IUCEA, 2014). Additionally, a study was conducted in Kenya in 2017 to explore ‘soft skills’ nurturing among Technical and Vocational Education and Training institutions and preparation of students for self-employment. The study showed that Technical and Vocational Education and Training institutions did not nurture soft skills such as time management, problem solving, decision making, and creativity and others for their survival and self-employment (Murgor, 2017). In Uganda, the Skilling Uganda Business, Technical and Vocational Education and Training Strategic Plan affirms that more than 60% of large and medium sized companies consider the training provided by such institutions to be irrelevant to their requirements (Mitana et al., 2019). According to the IUCEA, over half the graduates from the East Africa Community region lack the necessary skills to be employed in the labour market and over 40% of them lack adequate soft skills or life skills (IUCEA, 2014). While those going to school and graduating from higher education institutions lack adequate skills for employment, even more concerning is the large number of youth in East Africa who are Not in Education, Employment or Training. These youth, along with the more than 20% of East Africa youth who are recorded as unemployed, make up a large segment of the youth population. This points to a dire need to address the shortcomings in the education sector that are signified by high dropout rates and exit from schooling without adequate skills and qualifications to progress in life.

2.2 Learning Assessments as Evidence for Influencing Policy

Learning assessment data have been used by education systems and development partners to shape education policy and practice. Notably, UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics (UIS) has identified several cross-national learning assessments that meet the criteria to measure the proportion of children and young people achieving minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics to inform monitoring under the Sustainable Development Goal 4. International large-scale assessments drawn upon include the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), and Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (LaNA).

Regionally, most notable large-scale assessments are Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ), Programme for the Analysis of Education Systems (PASEC), Pacific Islands Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (PILNA), Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM), and Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (ERCE). Other assessments that are implemented both regionally and nationally are Early Grade Mathematics Assessment (EGMA) and Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA). UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank as development partners, also conducted the Measuring Early Learning Quality and Outcomes (MELQO) program.

Regional assessments are of course facilitated at country level. For example, UNICEF administered MELQO in collaboration with the National Examination Council of Tanzania in 2015. In Kenya, the Kenya National Examination Council administered SACMEQ. True national assessments are typically undertaken by ministries of education. For example, in Uganda, the Uganda National Examination Board administers the National Assessment of Progress in Education (NAPE) focused on Grades 3 and 6; since 1996 at primary school level and 2008 at secondary school level. NAPE collects data on cognitive and non-cognitive skills, and findings are reported at national and sub national levels.

Learning assessments such as these have contributed to informing the formulation, implementation, and review of educational policies and practices globally. For instance, Lockheed et al. (2015) established that donors use PISA results in dialogue with middle-income countries to set agenda relating to reform of curricula, standards, and teacher professional development.

In East Africa, the Uwezo citizen-led assessment has been implemented for more than 6 years across Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, and has focused on assessing learning outcomes related to numeracy and literacy. Its aim is to provide credible data that stimulates policy dialogues and drives educational reforms by using the clarion call ‘Are our children learning?’. Although with varying degrees of acceptance and acknowledgment by the respective governments, the Uwezo assessments in the three countries have helped to draw attention and spark dialogue on the poor learning outcomes across schools in the three countries (Nakabugo, 2021).

2.2.1 The Pitfalls and Challenges of Evidence Use

Education systems worldwide face pressure due to the increasing number of children entering formal education, and to the need to deliver education of high quality that is relevant for the fast-changing and complex world. Research-based evidence can positively impact quality, design, and effectiveness of policies (Goldman & Pabari, 2021). In fact, better utilization of research and evidence in development policy and practice can help save lives, reduce poverty, and improve the quality of life (Young, 2005). Using research to inform policy and practice: (1) ensures that policy decisions are informed by and anchored on a solid evidence base; (2) minimizes policy failures and waste of resources on unworkable programs; and (3) can drive innovations which have the potential to transform societies. One example of evidence generation both informing and resulting from national level policy and practice that contributes to global transformative development is the monitoring and gathering of data for tracking the Sustainable Development Goals through UIS. The UIS has set up an infrastructure that facilitates sharing of data and evidence from each participating country. The UIS guidelines provide for different approaches to be used to generate evidence as long as the data is credible, reliable, and can provide insights into areas or sectors being analysed.

There is evidence that the relationship between evidence production and its utilization may not be linear (Manning et al., 2020), meaning that data availability is not the main reason for failure to use evidence for decision making. Studies have shown that even though more learning data have become available in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), they have not been effectively used in educational planning. For instance, a three-country study on use of learning assessments across Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda revealed several factors that hinder the uptake and utilization of education data and evidence in education policy making (GESCI, 2022). The main factors included poor conceptualisation of learning assessments, minimal capacity to interpret data and evidence, poor attitudes towards learning assessments, weak institutionalization of research, weak dissemination, and poor stakeholder engagement (GESCI, 2022). Another study that covered Ghana, Guinea, Namibia, Senegal, The Gambia, and Zambia found that lack of capacity to analyse learning data, lack of assessment data integration with other data sources, missing feedback loops between different administrative levels, and the absence of a comprehensive policy framework for producing learning data, also impedes their effective use (IIEP-UNESCO, 2022).

Policy making is an intricate and multi-stage process (Anderson et al., 2022). Influencing policy and practice is an iterative process that considers several factors, particularly the political and socio-economic environment where the action is taking place. Policy influencing refers to how “external actors are able to interact with the policy process and affect the policy positions, approaches and behaviors” (Court et al., 2006, p. 6). In reality, policy making does not follow a linear approach and usually involves both formal and informal processes across a range of actors and institutions until the intended policy influencing objective is reached (Court et al., 2006). According to a study on experiences with evidence-informed policy, influencing is often a complex web of processes that requires different ingredients including: a robust evidence base, building coalitions, learning the rules of the game in many different systems, and a process of continuous reflection and change in the light of experience and context (Mayne et al., 2018).

2.2.2 Addressing Gaps in Evidence and Policy

The Assessment of Life Skills and Values in East Africa (ALiVE) intentions were stimulated both by the documented gap between labour market and appropriately skilled workforce and by the challenges experienced in the education systems in East African countries, specifically Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda as they responded and adapted to the growing market demands, through reforms in the formal education system. These two categories of concern overlap in several ways, with their foundations rooted in societal norms about education. Three specific responses from ALiVE are discussed in this section. Evidence and Capacity Limitations

The first gap addressed by ALiVE is the absence of a large-scale assessment of life skills and values, and the limited capacities of practitioners in the region to generate this evidence. Although there is evidence of large-scale assessments impacting policy, as noted above these have primarily targeted literacy and numeracy achievement. In the life skills and values space, there have been few large-scale assessments, although there are some tools that target child wellbeing and social-emotional development. The tools are mainly from the United States and other high-income countries. Some of the most popular include the International Development and Early Learning Assessment (IDELA; Save the Children, 2019), MELQO (UNESCO et al., 2017), the Social-Emotional Assessment/Evaluation Measure (SEAM; Squires et al., 2013), the Child Behavior Questionnaire (CBQ; Goodman & Scott, 1999), and International Social and Emotional Learning Assessment (ISELA; D’Sa & Krupar, 2019). Their focus is mainly on the early years and not the pre-pubescent or adolescent years. In terms of types of assessments, many are self-rating scales, and none of them have been developed for SSA contexts. A study commissioned by Echidna Giving in 2018 (Wamahiu & Bapna, 2019) that mapped life skills implementation across East Africa revealed that although organizations in East Africa are working on nurturing life skills and values, few are using contextually relevant tools. In most organizations that are engaged in the programs, test and scale development expertise, and large-scale assessment capacity, is low. ALiVE’s response has been to design, plan and implement a large-scale assessment of life skills and values across Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Limited Contextual Understanding of Life Skills and Values

The second gap addressed by ALiVE is the absence of contextual definition of life skills and values in East Africa. Terms used to describe generic cognitive and social-emotional skills or life skills vary in the education space. Values, and how they are defined or understood, are intertwined in a cultural, social or political context. Wamahiu and Bapna (2019) revealed that in East Africa there is no common understanding of these skills, and little understanding of how to develop or measure them. This situation has also been documented in Asia and the Asia-Pacific (e.g., Care & Luo, 2016). Education systems are faced with the need to define and describe these skills in ways that make sense to the broader population and especially to parents, in ways that will engage community support to change perceptions of what education provides and what this might mean for how different qualities in children might be valued. Without these common understandings, the historical prioritization by parents and teachers of academic scores at the expense of other competencies (Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, 2016), will continue the practice of underfunding life skills programs and education (Fagan & Mihalic, 2003). Limited Policy Uptake of Evidence by Government

The notable disconnect between written intentions and learning outcomes, particularly in life skills and values, is a third gap addressed by the ALiVE initiative. The growing demand for the development of generic competencies across the globe has prompted over 100 governments in the past couple of decades to introduce these complex skills into their policies and curricula (Care & Kim, 2018). This has been the case for governments in East Africa, with the Tanzanian government being the first to develop a competency based curriculum in 2008 and more recently Kenya and Uganda doing the same. Despite progress in integrating values and life skills in curricular frameworks, actual implementation varies from country to country. For example, in Kenya, life skills and values are in the curriculum, but according to some sources there is little assessment of the same, and teacher’s understandings of these competencies are low (Atikiya, 2021). There is progress however with the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development and the Kenya National Examinations Council in 2023 providing guidance on designs for assessment and developing assessment frameworks. The recent pattern in Uganda is similar; the new secondary curriculum includes ‘generic skills’, and the Ugandan education system is now faced with operationalising the acquisition of these ‘essential skills’ (Mitana et al., 2019). In Tanzania, life skills have been integrated into various subjects at the secondary level with reporting in 2018 that at that time teacher’s capacities and assessment practices were lacking (UNICEF, 2018). There is a clear pattern of policies and curricula on non-cognitive competencies and life skills being hindered by examination-oriented classroom practice (Allen et al., 2016). Notwithstanding these challenges, in all three countries there is an acknowledgement that co-created and contextualised tools are needed to assess outcomes in these areas (Wamahiu & Bapna, 2019).

2.3 The ALiVE Way

ALiVE was designed to generate evidence to influence policy and practice in the incorporation and assessment of contextualised life skills in the education sectors of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. ALiVE is a collaborative initiative of RELI’s Values and Life Skills (VaLi) cluster, composed of nearly 20 civil society organizations promoting values and life skills across the region. Participating organizations were experiencing similar challenges related to values and life skills education across the three countries, and so worked towards finding answers to three critical questions: (1) How are life skills and values understood in context? (2) How are life skills and values assessed in context? (3) What works in nurturing life skills and values? ALiVE’s findings in response to the first two questions were accompanied by the expectation that policy uptake of evidence would answer the third question.

The initiative was conceptualised as three pillars which also define the anticipated outcomes:

an assessment pillar designed to ensure that evidence on contextualised life skills and values was generated; an evidence-led advocacy pillar designed to ensure that evidence generated would inform policy and the public; a learning community pillar designed to strengthen local capacities.

ALiVE’s theory of change (Fig. 2.1) illustrates how the three pillars lead to the ultimate outcome of learners being equipped with values and life skills. Each of these pillars overlap and result in key outputs contributing to impact. As contextualised assessments are co-created by local experts, local capacities evolve. As these local experts interact within a broader learning community of civil society and government, East African voices become amplified regionally and internationally.

Fig. 2.1
A Venn diagram of 3 circles for contextualized assessments, learning community, and evidence-led advocacy. The common areas for 2 circles are local capacities, amplified E A voice, and education system focus on Vali respectively. The common area for 3 circles is learners with values and life skills.

ALiVE theory of change

2.3.1 Pillar 1: Contextualised Assessment

The pillar was designed to respond to the low capacity in the region on how to develop life skills and values assessments and to the lack of evidence on life skills and values in East Africa. The pillar focused on capacity enhancement of local experts and practitioners, particularly curriculum and assessment experts from the participating governments, as well as Regional Education Learning Initiative (RELI) members, to develop expertise in the assessment of life skills and values. Through this capacity enhancement process, evidence on adolescents’ life skills and values could be used for awareness raising and policy advocacy. The pillar consisted of creating an assessment tool based on contextualised definitions of the identified competencies. The competencies were selected through a consultative process that included scanning of the curricula of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda and a consensus process with the VaLi members of RELI. The selected competencies were three life skills (collaboration, problem solving, and self-awareness) and the value of respect. The tool development process was undertaken through five workshops over a period of 10 months followed by a pilot phase. The pillar achieved the conduct of a household-based assessment of the ALiVE survey tool to over 45,000 adolescents across Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, hence producing large-scale evidence of functioning levels of adolescents on the targeted competencies. The process adopted three features to make it a viable mechanism for generating evidence to influence policy.

  • Contextualisation: Contextualisation was a process to identify local understandings and definition of the skills. An ethnographic study generated an understanding of how the selected ALiVE competencies were defined in local environments. Over 350 participants in villages across 15 districts in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, were interviewed to collect a first round of information. The districts represented diverse groups of people including fishing, pastoralist, agricultural, semi-urban, urban slums, and rural communities. Language diversity was catered for with over 17 different languages represented. Within these communities, leaders, parents, teachers, social workers, and others working with children, along with adolescents, were targeted and purposively selected to be part of the study. Key information interviews generated an understanding of how these groups define the chosen competencies. Participants were asked questions about how they defined the competencies, the terminologies for these in their language, the characteristics of those who have these competencies, and so on.

  • Tool Development: The tool development process involved local practitioners and teachers who used their understanding and experience of and with adolescents in their context. The development team included technical experts from curriculum and examination councils, representatives from civil society, local colleges and universities including those with experience in psychometrics and psychology. The team for the ALiVE tool development process comprised 47 individuals who worked virtually and in-person over the period of creation, piloting, and finalisation. The participants were taken through a process of defining the skills based on the contextualised study, developing skills frameworks based on the skill structures, developing tasks based on the context, pre-testing the tasks to check for validity, and piloting the tasks. The tasks designed were either scenario or performance-based tasks. This was a major point of departure from the self-rating scales predominantly used to measure life skills and values.

  • Household-based Assessment: The household-based mode of assessment was a key characteristic of ALiVE, reflecting the emphasis on all adolescents, rather than only those attending formal education. It also reflected the focus on context and environment by ensuring appropriate sampling of the target population across the three countries. Household assessments generate rich data on target competencies but also capture socio-economic and environment information. This contextual information provides insights to strengthen evidence generated. For example, competencies can be analysed against schooling, gender, geography, socioeconomic status, ability, and age. The assessment process started with a training of trainers where the development team built the capacity of trainers in each country. These trainers then trained over 3000 test administrators across the three countries. For the assessment itself, the test administrators worked in pairs going from household to household over a three-day period in each enumeration area. Ultimately 45,442 adolescents were assessed across the three countries. In each village or enumeration area, test administrators were escorted to each household by community leaders or village chiefs.

2.3.2 Pillar 2: Evidence-Led Advocacy

This pillar was designed to represent the evidence generated from the assessment pillar to policy makers, practitioners, parents and the community about the status of life skills and values in the three countries. The pillar drew on identification of key messages from the large-scale assessment results and was nuanced through identification of key stakeholders at local, national, and regional levels. Targeted outreach to media was a core strategy to raise visibility, particularly associated with events including government representatives; while establishing technical credibility was attended to through publication and presentation in professional media. Additional information about the philosophy and approach undertaken by ALiVE can be found in Mugo (2024; Chap.12, this volume).

The key messages were determined on the basis of analysis of the adolescent response data. High-level findings were packaged into reports for dissemination. A report was developed for each of the four education systems (Kenya, Tanzania mainland, Uganda, and Zanzibar) with key findings for each skill. Analysis of the results showed how adolescents performed across gender, age, schooling, and ability categories. Also reported were district comparisons, associations between the competencies, and associations between these and basic literacy and digital literacy skills. A regional summary report was also launched, introducing an approach to reporting results within a learning framework as distinct from a summative achievement approach. The learning framework approach is an intentional strategy for ALiVE in emphasising integration of life skills and values within overall education provision.

Identification of key stakeholders was undertaken through liaising with members of RELI and central government units within the four education systems. The dissemination process was launched at national level in each country, then moved to the district and community levels, simultaneously including engagement with media channels. Targeted outreach was designed to capture media interest in general education reporting, and the visibility of ministers and high officials in the education systems.

Concurrently with direct advocacy to government, ALiVE represented its learnings through preparation of technical reports to establish credibility in the assessment community, publications in academic literature, and presentations in local, regional, and international events.

2.3.3 Pillar 3: Learning Community

ALiVE took a self-conscious and deliberate approach to learning. The intention was to strengthen local capacity in assessment and representation of evidence to effect change. At a RELI organisational level, the intention was to create a unified regional voice as to how life skills and values could be nurtured and assessed. The approach involved three elements: learning by doing; learning from and with one another; and learning for learning. Through the learning by doing approach, local experts were engaged and able to benefit from the development work including conducting literature searches and reviewing academic referencing tools; development and refinement of constructs; tool development and assessment; data analysis and reporting; and academic authoring and publication. Learning from and with one another involved the establishment of a learning community that were engaged through 13 ‘learn-shops’ organised over a 3-year period. Over 2000 participants were drawn from the RELI network, government, academia, and collaborating institutions. Global actors in the life skills space such as Amplify Girls, EASEL-Lab at Harvard, OECD, INEE, The Life Skills Collaborative, among others, facilitated and contributed to the learning. A culmination of this learning from and with one another was the VaLi-Africa conference, the first of its kind in East Africa, bringing together national and global players in the life skills and values space. As a result of these learning processes, individuals have been empowered to amplify their voices in the space of life skills and values through presentations at conferences and meetings reaching over 10,000 participants. In the learning for learning approach, the ALiVE team underwent a process of documenting the learnings of ALiVE. This process yielded five learnings briefs as well as a formative learning framework which are now being used to inform a second phase of the ALiVE initiative. Additional information about the learning approach undertaken by ALiVE can be found in Turner et al. (2024; Chap.11, this volume).

2.4 Conclusions

ALiVE has taken an intentional step to gather evidence to inform growing concerns about the nature of education in the participating countries. The use of that evidence is the most critical element in ALiVE’s agenda, but is totally reliant on the generation of high quality data which is valid for purpose. ALiVE has contributed to global expertise through its generation of large-scale, household-based, multi-national assessment of ‘non-traditional’ competencies, namely life skills and values. While the utility of large-scale assessments is sometimes hindered by factors such as limited capacity of policy makers to engage with evidence, poor dissemination strategies, and inadequate engagement of key stakeholders, ALiVE adopted strategies to tackle these barriers throughout its development, implementation, reporting, and dissemination processes. And while local stakeholders’ voices are sometimes limited in reach, ALiVE’s focus on learning and building a learning community of both local and global actors, is strengthening local expertise and amplifying local voices to the global stage.