The UK can play a key role in improving girls’ education—but only if it switches course back to focus on learning rather than just on getting girls into a school building.
The UK government recently issued a call for evidence to inform its new International Development Strategy. The new strategy will outline the government’s approach to development work and will be in close alignment with the previously published Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.
In this blog, I share the comments I submitted—which have been slightly edited for clarity.
It is heartening to see that girls’ education remains a top priority for the government. However, it will be critical that the government focusses on getting girls to learn rather than on just getting them into a school building.
In low-income countries, a staggering 90 percent of girls (and boys) are not learning to read by age 10. The majority of these children are in school but receiving such poor-quality education that they never master basic, foundational skills. Without these skills, girls’ life chances are severely diminished.
Both programming and diplomatic efforts will need to shift to focus on learning. Research evidence demonstrates that many millions of pounds have been invested in donor-funded programmes that have not improved learning. As pointed out in a recent open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Uhuru Kenyatta, continuing to use the same approaches that have failed in the past represents very poor value for money for the British taxpayer.
Supporting learning early in girls’ school careers is particularly important so they acquire the foundational skills that they will need to continue to learn and to prosper. It is crucial to note that in most developing countries the majority of girls are in school but not learning. Therefore, the focus needs to be on improving entire education systems rather than on targeted interventions for the most marginalised; there is little point in getting additional girls into classrooms if nobody is learning once there.
Given the situation outlined above, it is concerning that the policy position set out int the Integrated Review, as well as recent policy statements by senior members of the government, seem to have gone backwards from a focus on learning to a focus on access. The rhetoric appears to be mainly about getting girls in school despite the fact that FCDO’s own education policy is entitled ‘Get Children Learning’.
One reason for the lack of focus on the learning crisis may be that the Integrated Review authors believe that education quality is rising and will continue to do so. They base this assertion on data suggesting that adult literacy rates are increasing. But these statistics should be viewed with caution. Adult literacy levels have historically been calculated through a combination of asking adults if they can read (which may not give an accurate reflection) and extrapolation based on the number of children who have completed at least four years of primary school (which will not be accurate given that we now know that many children are spending many years in school without ever becoming literate).
A more accurate estimation of literacy comes from carrying out tests to assess whether individuals can ‘read for meaning’. These data paint a very different picture, suggesting that in low and middle-income countries the majority of children remain illiterate and that in many countries rates of literacy are going down, not up. For example, data from the ASER Programme shows that despite significant increases in spending on education in India in the past two decades, education outcomes have worsened. In 2006, 51 percent of Grade 5 children in rural Indian schools could read a grade 2 level text; in 2018, that figure was 44 percent. This analysis from India reflects a broader trend across the developing world.1 Experts expect that learning levels will reduce even more due to school closures that have been implemented—and indeed continue to be implemented—due to COVID.
The Integrated Review also suggests that increasing penetration of technology will play a crucial role in improving education standards; however, according the Global Education Advisory Panel, access to technology alone does not improve learning outcomes. Even the UK government’s flagship research programme on Education Technology, the EdTech Hub, is clear that effective teaching—whether supported by technology or not—is the key driver of improved learning outcomes.
It is of course possible that there will be shifts to education systems that lead to improvements in learning, but this is by no means inevitable. It will only happen if there is a significant shift in policy and practice in many developing countries.
The UK government could catalyse progress on girls’ education by using its influence to drive changes in policy and practice. Within developing countries the UK is well-placed to move to a more locally led model of delivery, working closely with governments and drawing on local organisations wherever possible. Where international expertise is brought in it will be important to ensure that local capacity is being built along the way.
The government should be cautious about attempting to ‘export’ best practice from the UK to other contexts; it is important to clearly identify which problems need to be solved in a particular context, to design approaches to respond to those, and to be willing to iterate and adapt as you go. Approaches that instead ‘parachute’ in a pre-packaged intervention from elsewhere often fail to make a difference since they do not address the actual constraints to learning in the local context. This can be seen, for example, in this research on a ‘best-practice’ management approach which was introduced to the Indian education system but had no impact on learning. Locally embedded researchers and civil society organisations will play a key role in the process of problem and solution identification.
The UK is also well-placed to influence on the international stage. The UK can be proud of the leadership role it has played in raising funds for multilateral education funds, but it could massively increase the impact of these funds by pushing to ensure they are spent effectively. Difficult questions will need to be asked about why so much past funding has not succeeded in improving learning and to identify how programmes can be designed, procured, and overseen to increase the chances of future success. The UK can draw on some of its own successful bilateral programmes (e.g., EQUIP in Tanzania) as examples of how programmes can be designed to improve learning at scale. A key ally in this work could be the US government which, through USAID, has a long history of supporting effective bilateral programmes to get children learning.
The UK government could also play an important role in supporting effective coordination and prioritisation between multilateral agencies working on education. Given their sometimes competing and overlapping mandates, it has been difficult for these agencies to agree this amongst themselves, but as a major donor the UK is well-placed to work (together with other donors) to drive improved effectiveness.
The Strategic Review rightly highlights the UK’s strengths in Science and Technology, but it will be important to emphasise that this strength extends to the social sciences and economics. In particular, DFID/FCDO has played a key role in driving up the quality and quantity of global education research in the past decade. This research expertise will be a valuable asset as the UK steps up its development diplomacy efforts. For example, researchers will be able to provide diplomats with crucial insights into the existing political economy in a given context and to offer lessons on how change has been enabled in other contexts.
As well as supporting UK-based researchers, the UK has a proud tradition of supporting partnerships and capacity building for researchers in developing countries. Working with high-quality, local researchers is critical to the quality and credibility of research results and contributes to a more effective ecosystem of research-informed policy making in the longer term. These partnerships are in the UK interest as well; an extensive network of international research collaboration contributes significantly to the UK’s soft power.
The UK government has the opportunity to bring together its significant diplomatic assets and its expertise in development programming to make real progress on girls’ education. However, unless the UK government itself is crystal clear that the focus needs to be on learning, particularly of foundational skills, it will be very difficult for them to advocate for the considerable shifts in practice that will be needed by developing country governments. Similarly, unless ministers, special advisors, and senior officials clearly communicate to officials within FCDO that they are looking for improvements to learning outcomes, the organisation will continue to roll out programmes that focus on getting girls into a classroom rather than on ensuring that all girls can learn.
RISE research is supported by FCDO (along with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). Kirsty Newman previously worked for DFID and, before leaving the civil service in 2019, was Head of the Education Policy Team. During her time in that role, she oversaw the development and publication of the 2018 DFID Education Policy 'Get Children Learning'.
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