36 Gordon Square
London WC1H 0PD

T +44 (0) 20 7958 8251

Poor Educational Outcomes and Ways to Overcome Them Explored

Serious weaknesses in the education sector in developing countries and policy and research recommendations to remedy them were discussed at an academic event in London. Opened by Professor Angela Little, of the Institute of Education, the discussions at IoE marked the culmination of three major DFID-funded five-year research programmes focusing, in turn, on educational access, quality and outcomes. Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser at DFID, outlined DFID's support for research and policy developments in this crucial area. 

Speakers raised challenges, including the ‘silently excluded’ (children enrolled, but not learning), dropout rates, and inadequate teacher training. Jo Bourne, of DFID and an IoE alumna, labelled poor educational outcomes as a “scandal” and spoke of the need for more research on education because it remains underrepresented when compared to other development sectors, including agriculture and health.

The conference on 15 November was staged by the UK Forum for International Education and Training (UKFIET) and DFID to disseminate the findings of three Research Programme Consortia (RPCs): Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity (CREATE), Implementing Education Quality in Low Income Countries (EdQual), and Research Consortium on Educational Outcomes and Poverty (RECOUP). Throughout the day, the complementary perspectives of the three groups and their partners were reinforced. Professor Joseph Djangmah, of the University of Education at Winneba, Ghana, said all the RPCs are addressing the same problems, and access and quality have to be achieved “hand-in-hand.” Little also emphasised the importance of political will, particularly at the national and local levels, to securing sustainable educational reforms.

School dropouts
Professor Keith Lewin, Director of CREATE, delivered a salutary warning about the drawbacks of concentrating solely on enrolment. He said the expansion of school places has, sometimes, been accompanied by falling quality of education and increasing inequity in the quality of education. Lewin also emphasised that the majority of today’s out-of-school children used to attend school but dropped out, rather than never having been enrolled. He predicted that the second Millennium Development Goal – universal primary education – will not be met by 2015 because the education sector has failed to prevent the next generation of dropouts. Drawing on CREATE’s zones of exclusion, including children who have never enrolled, attend school irregularly and make poor progress, and dropouts, Lewin explained how the number of children not learning – the “silently excluded” – is actually far higher than the UN’s estimate of 70 million children not enrolled in school.

Quality of education
Researchers from EdQual discussed the importance of improving the quality of education for disadvantaged learners in low-income contexts. All presenters agreed on the importance of literacy, numeracy and key life skills, including the prevention of disease. Professor Leon Tikly, Director of EdQual, added: "A good quality of education needs to be inclusive, relevant and democratic." He explained that a good quality of education depends on the interaction between policy, the school, home and community. Processes mentioned to improve the quality of education and learning outcomes included better child nutrition, an enabling home environment, a relevant and inclusive curriculum adjusted to the appropriate level of understanding of the language of instruction, national and local assessment, monitoring and evaluation of the quality of education and learning outcomes, and promotion of leadership and accountability, both at the school as well as the regional and national level.
Education outcomes
Professor Christopher Colclough, Director of RECOUP, indicated that RECOUP is primarily concerned with the medium/long-term outcomes of education – the ways in which educational experience has an impact upon the lives and livelihoods of those who pass through it. He showed how education does not do the same things for all people and there are strong within-country differences in its outcomes.  In particular, poverty may prevent individuals from benefiting as much from education as it does those who are better off.  This is partly because poor communities often have more restricted access to good quality education, and partly because poorer families often require children to help with household work, they find the costs of sending children to school more difficult to meet, and they may be able to help their children less with their school work.  So the many positive benefits of education – economic, social and personal – are often not equally accessible to everyone.  Colclough explained how RECOUP has been analysing the ways in which education has an impact on the lives of the poor, so as to help governments and international agencies design policies which better address these linkages.

Policy and research recommendations
While EdQual's research focused on the key role of teachers in raising education quality, Professor Krishna Kumar, of Delhi University, described teacher training as an “invisible” element which needs to be prioritised. He said: “Poor quality training does not stimulate critical thinking. Teacher training cannot wait.” Kumar also called for education to be tailored to the evolving markets in developing countries so students are better suited to work opportunities.

The required rigour and relevance of education research generated considerable discussion. Bourne commented on the overall lack of evidence and asked for better measurement of educational outcomes, especially in the early years of schooling. She said more investment is needed in metrics and spoke of DFID’s focus on results. Simon McGrath, chief editor of The International Journal of Educational Development, called for more interdisciplinary research, both in terms of topic selection and methodology, and studies in a wider range of locations, including more non-English-speaking countries. Lewin also said "irreversible" problems, such as stunting and cognitive damage, should be thrust to the centre of policy debates because once they occur recovery is impossible.

By Guy Collender, Senior Communications Officer at LIDC, and Martina Vojtkova, Research Assistant, Synthetic Reviews, International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie)