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Opinion7th February 2018

The British government’s new plan to get children learning

This blog was co-authored by Susannah Hares, Senior Advisor, Ark and Lee Crawfurd, Head of Research and Evaluation, Ark Education Partnerships Group. EPG brings together organisations around the world to give every child an excellent education – and make sure poverty is not a barrier to success.

DFID’s new education policy aims to get children learning in the developing world’s failing schools by improving teaching, reforming systems, supporting the most marginalised, and exporting the “best of British”. Fortunately that means data and evidence, not grammar schools, Manchester United and marmite (definitively not the best of British).

The new DFID education policy “Get Children Learning” was published last week. As its name suggests, the policy is all about moving the needle on learning outcomes. It sets out a strategy to tackle the learning crisis in developing countries, which has left 90 percent of primary school leavers in low-income countries without basic literacy or numeracy. As a strategy, it’s relevant and ambitious, and it’s been widely welcomed by the education sector.

Of course, tackling a crisis this deep and complex is easier said than done. So how does DFID plan to do it?

Three priorities underpin DFID’s strategy to tackle the learning crisis and form the backbone of their new policy: better teaching, education system reform, and targeted support to the most marginalised kids. And permeating the strategy are three themes – more and better research; more attention paid to the political economy of education reform; and the “Best of British” – how UK expertise can be better leveraged to improving schools in developing countries. These themes are interesting because each represents a fairly fundamental shift in or crystallisation of thinking from DFID, and together they provide some insight into how the strategy will be executed. The “Best of British” theme in particular reflects a new willingness by DFID to think more strategically about how to facilitate cross-system learning.

Theme #1: Invest in evidence

The strong emphasis on generating evidence and evidence-based interventions isn’t new to DFID, but the prominence of research within the education programme has risen significantly recently (the annual education research budget in 2011 was just £500k, now it’s closer to £11 million). The good news is it looks like that’s here to stay. This is an area where DFID really is a global leader. DFID’s flagship research programme – RISE – is conducting cutting edge research on education systems in developing countries. Their support to the World Bank’s Early Learning Partnership is helping to generate much needed evidence on the efficacy of early years interventions. And DFID plans to invest in a new ed-tech research hub which will enable policy makers to make more informed decisions when investing in (often under-evidenced) technologies. DFID’s resolution to build up the evidence base in education could not be more welcome in a sector too often driven by hype and ideology.

Theme #2: Pay attention to politics

Paying more attention to the political economy of reform is smart, and provides a healthy dose of realism in an ambitious plan. Throughout the policy DFID refers to the big “political challenges” that stifle reform and innovation and to the vested interests that are entrenched in education systems and resist change. DFID pulls no punches. The language – let’s “shake up recruitment practices”; let’s “look beyond stagnant public sectors” – communicates their admirable resolve to challenge the status quo. And if they want to deliver on their strategy, they’ll need to follow through on that resolve. They’ll need to be nimble and take advantage of windows of opportunity. They’ll need to support reformist Ministers and leaders as they negotiate with teacher unions and face politically difficult trade-offs. DFID stops short of saying that nothing will change if they don’t get this part right, but the sentiment is there. DFID’s new strategy will fail if they don’t figure out how to navigate the tricky politics of education reform.

Theme #3: Exporting the Best of British

The slightly unfortunately branded “Best of British” is an effort to facilitate greater access to UK education expertise – from models for teacher and leader development, through policy advice on PPPs and school inspection, to partnerships with our higher education institutions. This theme has generated some controversy, with observers fearing it means a neo-colonial export of contextually inappropriate UK policy and practice. But, done well, it doesn’t need to be. All countries can learn from how things are done elsewhere. The challenge for donors is to ensure that they have a firm understanding of local context and what the most important problems are, before trying to intelligently address these problems with the array of potential solutions from global experience.

Ark is partnering with DFID and the Ugandan Ministry of Education on system reform programmes that have benefited substantially from the sharing of education policy and implementation experience in the UK.

There’s much more that could be done. The UK is perhaps unparalleled in using data and evidence in its own education practice. A coalition of UK organisations is emerging who are generating evidence on the impact of innovative approaches to teacher and leader recruitment, training and development. These are organisations who have learned from best practice in education systems elsewhere in the world, and have iterated, improved and adapted for the UK context. This cross-system learning doesn’t need to be limited to “developed world” education systems – there’s a lot they could share with (and indeed learn from) the developing world. Investing in a scoping exercise to better understand what other lessons from the UK (and other high-income countries) might be relevant for addressing the challenges faced for education in low-income countries could provide a good foundation from which to work from.

DFID’s three priorities – teachers, system reform, and support to the most marginalised – form a robust education strategy. To get children learning, DFID has recognised that alongside these priorities they need more research, a willingness to tackle the politics of education reform and a way to share domestic education expertise more effectively. If they get these things right, the new strategy holds the potential to make a real difference to the life chances of the millions of children who leave primary school every year unable to read or write.