The most ambitious education project so far launched in Africa could have a profound impact on millions of children across the continent.
More than 50 senior bureaucrats from ministries of education in the southern African region have now taken part in training programmes on designing and implementing research projects to monitor the quality of primary schooling.
Between 3,000 and 5,000 children in randomly selected schools across 10 countries will undertake tests in the next few weeks to assess their reading abilities, and will provide details of their home background and school life.
Their teachers, meantime, will complete questionnaires covering classrooms, teaching practices, and work and living conditions.
The product will be a series of reports that will make available for the first time a vast amount of data, including how effective the various education systems are, whether girls and boys have equal opportunities, how school conditions compare with the governments' own benchmarks, and which educational inputs have most impact on reading achievement.
It took Dr Ken Ross, who is leading the UNESCO-backed project, and his colleagues in Africa and France, four years to design the project. An initial research study was conducted in Zimbabwe.
Dr Ross, a senior academic at Deakin University in Melbourne, is a consultant statistician with the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).
"We chose grade six as the target population because it is at that level where the basics of reading should have been acquired and all pupils should be able to read with comprehension," Dr Ross said. The latest computer technology, used to analyse IEA literacy data, was flown in to the project's headquarters in Harare and Dr Andreas Schleicher, the IEA data processing manager, was put in charge of training Africans in its use.
Professor Neville Postlethwaite, an Englishman who had headed the IEA for 15 years and whom Dr Ross calls "the elder statesman of evaluation of national education systems", was appointed senior consultant to head the team that interviewed the education ministers and their directors.