Initiative Overview: Grassroots Innovations in Early Learning

Firelight is working with 12 grassroots organizations in Tanzania to improve children’s school readiness, literacy, and numeracy outcomes. Each partner takes a holistic and innovative approach to increase community involvement in children’s early learning. Tanzania has made impressive strides to increase enrollment at the primary school level. However the rapid increase has not included sufficient investments to improve education quality. As a result, children leave school without age-appropriate reading, writing, or arithmetic skills. Uwezo, an education policy organization in East Africa, conducts an annual assessment of learning outcomes for children in Tanzania. In 2012, the assessment showed that by Standard 7, the last year of primary school, more than half of the students could not read a Standard 2 level story in English. This severely limits the number of students who can advance to secondary school. Gender inequalities are also found at all levels of the education continuum, resulting in lower enrollment and success rates for girls.

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Many grassroots organizations help children access school, but struggle with issues of education quality. In response, Firelight developed an initiative in 2011 to support community-based organizations (CBOs) designing innovative models to improve student learning. Funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the overarching goal of our Grassroots Innovations in Early Learning Initiative is to improve reading, writing, and arithmetic levels for children in the early years of education. Now embarking on the second phase of this initiative, we’re building on the lessons learned in phase one to advance the process of incubating innovation, assessing efficacy of the models, and sharing the most effective models with other CBOs.

Read our Quarter 1 update to see how grassroots initiatives have improved early learning in Tanzania

Our 12 partners in this initiative have designed a range of programs to engage children, families, and communities to improve education outcomes. Our partners work directly with children to help them transition into and engage in school; help parents support children to succeed; encourage schools to invest resources in the areas that affect children’s learning; and hold school districts and schools accountable for children’s learning.


We are working with our partners to document the impact of these programs for young children through the Zambia Child Assessment Test (ZamCAT) and for primary-school aged children through the Uwezo assessment.

Learn more about the Uwezo assessment tool

We recognize that creating change is a long-term process. This initiative has three intentionally sequenced stages to foster uptake of innovation:

Stage 1: In the first stage, we identified the innovators, analyzed programs to find patterns of innovation, and engaged CBOs in thought partnership to refine and enhance their models, while developing tools to measure change. We used the insights gained to improve our definition of innovation, as well as to improve our grantmaking, capacity building, learning, and evaluation.

Stage 2: Now in the second stage, we‘re deepening our understanding of CBOs’ challenges and the solutions proposed to address them. Our emphasis on incubation of innovations will help us to refine models as well as to document which interventions lead to change in children’s learning outcomes. In addition, we plan to support other CBOs to learn about effective approaches and implement new models in their own communities, while also building up our partners’ capacity to facilitate social accountability.

Stage 3: The third stage of this initiative will focus on lateral replication. We will work with our partners to help communities hold government accountable for delivering quality services and adequate resources to support children’s education.

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As families, communities, and schools work together to fulfill children’s rights to a quality education, we’ll learn and share our knowledge about how to incubate grassroots innovation. It’s our hope that this knowledge continues to add to the wider field of international education, and over time increases support and recognition for the role of grassroots organizations in improving education quality and learning outcomes for vulnerable children.