Teachers + Classrooms + Students = Learning? Think Again!

On how poor management and lack of accountability in education result in low learning outcomes for Congolese children

Children during a class in a school of North-Kivu, DRC (Aubrey Wade/IRC)

If you speak to any African parent, she or he will usually very quickly point out how important it is for her or his children to attend school. Literacy and education does not only confer social status, but also crucially, improves livelihood opportunities and incomes, and leads to better health and well-being. None of this is news and even an illiterate farmer toiling on his field in a village of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) understands this. Indeed, when the IRC and its partners asked community members in hundreds of locations of the Eastern DRC about their top local priority, better education consistently came first.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) and its partners implemented a large-scale community-driven reconstruction (CDR) program called Tuungane (“Let’s unite” in the local Kiswahili language) from 2007 to 2016. 
Tuungane: community-driven reconstruction program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

In response, the Tuungane program constructed hundreds of classrooms outfitted with tables, chairs, blackboards and books. About 150 million dollars provided by UKAid between 2007 and 2016 made this possible, and allowed Tuungane and its staff to respond to community development priorities in eastern DRC. Parallel efforts by other donors, international organizations, and the Congolese government led to additional investments in education across the country. This resulted in increasing numbers of teachers in a rising number of schools attended by increasing numbers of students. A great many communities got their schools, but are Congolese children learning? The answer is a qualified no.

A relatively obvious reason is that you have to look beyond educational inputs like classrooms and teachers, and need to consider issues of access and quality. Namely, children need to be enrolled in school, but also attend regularly and learn. Lack of access and low quality are issues plaguing most Sub-Saharan African countries. In DRC, despite rising enrollments, there are still an estimated 3.5 million primary school aged children out of school. Some children are never enrolled, while three out of ten children enrolled will drop out before completing primary school. This is largely explained by high school fees, low household incomes, and in rural areas, the greater distance to primary schools. If we turn to learning, the situation is no better, as only about half of Congolese children completing primary school are considered literate.

Another question is why are high school fees and relatively low access persisting, and why do learning achievements remain low, in spite of all the investments in education over the last decade in DRC? A recently published IRC Policy & Practice Brief explores some of the answers to this question.

A first highlight from the Brief is the meaningful increase in the resources the Congolese State dedicates to education over the last decade:

  • At 12.4%, the share of education expenditures in the national budget has doubled in the last decade, reflecting higher priority for the sector;
  • However, increasing numbers of personnel and higher salaries absorbed almost all the added resources;
  • Indeed, 94% of the government’s education expenditures funded salaries in recent years;
  • This allowed increasing low salaries and reducing the number of unpaid teachers, but left almost no resources for learning materials, operational expenses or investments.

Another point is that the Ministry of Education decreed some school fee reductions to decrease their burden on parents, but this was not successful:

  • Most teachers were dependent on school fees for a portion or their whole salaries, and this continued, even after the salary increases;
  • The administration absorbed a significant share of budget increases — the number of administrators tripled since 2008 — while few administrators directly support quality or learning;
  • This growing number of administrators has put more pressure on school fees, as administrators capture up to 40% of these for their own operational costs and salary bonuses;
  • Ultimately, this has more than compensated the fee reductions, and resulted in increasing formal and informal school fees across the country.

At an average of $40 per student per year, parents in the DRC pay directly through school fees two dollars for every dollar spent by the Congolese state in primary education. Parents thus directly cover two thirds of the costs of the education system through these fees. This significantly reduces access to education, especially given the high poverty rate. This also disproportionately affects girls, as parents tend to prioritize educating boys when short on resources.

Furthermore, we found that despite parents paying the majority of the education system’s costs directly, they have a weak influence on the management of schools:

  • Parent committees and school management committees exist, but remain weak and dominated by school directors, who primarily answer to administrators;
  • The lack of accountability and transparency to parents on fees and their use allows a large share of these to be redistributed toward administrators, diverting resources from classrooms;
  • Administrators are not accountable for supporting quality and learning in schools, despite the resources they divert from them;
  • This has effectively turned schools into de facto taxation units, something largely benefiting the administrators of the education system at the expense of parents, students and learning.

This highlights how governance problems like poor resource management and a lack of accountability undermine both access and quality. Donor-funded school constructions or teacher training alone cannot address this. This also requires interventions aiming to improve how the education system manages resources while increasing accountability to parents in schools.

How can this be achieved in DRC? First, this would require stimulating bottom up pressure on the system by increasing transparency and parent involvement in school management. Second, this would require supporting the system in a top-down manner to address management problems within the administration. In some cases, problems can be solved when parents, teachers and school directors collaborate to identify and implement solutions. In other cases, resolving problems will crucially depend on a more capable and responsive education system. The Service Delivery Theory of Change, a part of the IRC’s Outcome and Evidence Framework, articulates this joint bottom up and top down approach in more details.

In fact, if teachers do not receive a salary or pedagogical support, this is beyond the capacity of the local school and community to resolve. This is a key lesson learned from the Tuungane program illustrated in the video linked below. Similarly, interventions that solely focus on management and systems, without fostering greater accountability toward parents, have not proven successful either. In essence, accountability brings the required pressure on the school system to achieve better responsiveness and performance.

For example, parent committees in DRC could be supported to fully play their role in school management, notably by systematically monitoring the level of school fees and their use. In parallel, the Ministry of Education, with the support of Donors, could identify specific management problems and related solutions to address them. This could include improving the tracking of human resources in the administration and in schools, while measuring how they support learning in classrooms — and communicating findings to parents and the public.

Ultimately, resources directly supporting learning in classrooms must increase to improve quality. The reliance of the system on school fees also needs to decrease in order to increase access. This highlights that in addition to having more schools, teachers and students, better management and accountability are necessary conditions to improve learning for all Congolese children.


For readers interested in a more in depth assessment of the management and accountability issues in the DRC’s education sector, see the related Policy and Practice Discussion Paper linked below.


The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.

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