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Ilimi Haské: Learning in an Unequal World



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Hima, Halimatou 


The thesis analyses the intersections between inequalities, learning outcomes, and aspirations and further investigates why and how some students, particularly girls, succeed in furthering their schooling while others do not. The study focuses on Niger Republic which has some of the lowest rates of educational attainment and which also presents a unique case for analysis of within-country inequality. Despite the expansion of access to education, including in rural areas, learning outcomes remain extremely low, particularly in low-income countries. This thesis also engages with how the systemic failure to provide quality education informs the social discourse and the continued engagement with formal education.

This study draws on an extensive multi-year fieldwork conducted in the regions of Niamey and Maradi including in rural areas. It adopts a mixed methods approach, using quantitative and qualitative instruments – interviews, surveys and cognitive skills tests conducted in thirty-one (31) primary schools and four (4) secondary schools, archival research, focus group discussions, and observations. The cognitive skills tests assessed learning and competency in mathematics, reading, reading comprehension, and writing. A total of 1,909 students in the sixth grade participated in the primary school surveys and tests. In secondary schools, an extensive nine-part survey on aspirations, values, and educational experiences was conducted with 395 students in the tenth grade. A series of 113 interviews were conducted with key stakeholders including policymakers, traditional authorities, parents, teachers, and the students themselves: a study focusing on education in a postcolonial African context fundamentally engages with structures of power and privilege and, therefore, requires an understanding of the historical, cultural, and socio-political conditions within which the research is situated.

The thesis comprises eight chapters. The first contribution of this study is the reframing of the discourse on how the interactions between various educational spaces (Afro-Islamic, traditional, and formal) transformed and continue to shape the educational landscape including the social demand for education. Building on existing frameworks, this study proposes a multipronged nexus approach that incorporates the interconnectedness of the crises in education and how they intersect to reinforce existing vulnerabilities and create new forms of inequities. The second contribution is to suggest a methodological framework for studies in postcolonial contexts, building on a mixed methods approach, that uses an integrated approach for the process of data collection. The third major contribution is the empirical analysis of learning outcomes through multiple lenses. Using mathematics score as a proxy for learning outcomes, the study investigates what factors drive variations in learning outcomes and further brings a nuanced analysis to how variables such as socioeconomic status, gender, and the language of instruction affect educational outcomes and aspirations in postcolonial contexts that strive to provide education to ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse populations. In addition to the empirical analyses, the study makes a contribution in assessing the relationship between non-cognitive skills, educational outcomes, and aspirations whereby social institutions become an important factor of consideration in understanding and responding to the triple crisis of education (learning, retention, and completion).

By adopting the multipronged approach to the inquiry, this study furthers the analysis of how inequalities in access to quality education translate into systemic inequities in learning but also how pre-existing conditions and characteristics systematically chart educational trajectories. The study makes a contribution in understanding the emergence of outliers who disrupt trajectories and prevailing trends in ways that provide possibilities and pathways for policies resting on the opportunities or incremental advantages that render change possible. The conclusion underscores the need to place aspirations and values as central in the deconstruction and construction of an education system that liberates, empowers, and facilitates the quest for learning for all.





Fennell, Shailaja


Africa, Afro-Islamic knowledge systems, Development economics, Education, Gender equality, Inequality, Language theory, Learning, Multilingual education, Niger, Public policy


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Trust