Raise the floor: education systems that work for everyone

The evidence that convinced the international community that putting disadvantaged children first creates education systems that work for everyone.

In 2015, as the deadline for the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals for the international community came and went, deep concerns were being voiced about the state of global education.

“Developing countries are far from where they should be on learning,” Jaime Saavedra, the World Bank’s senior director for education, would later note. “Many do not invest enough financial resources and most need to invest more efficiently. Education reform is urgently needed and requires persistence.”

The problem was hardly that no progress had been made towards the “universal primary education” envisaged in the goals set by the UN 15 years earlier. On the contrary, in many parts of the Global South, pupil numbers were rocketing as access to primary school widened.

Attainment rates in basic education, however, remained stubbornly low. In 2014, UNESCO estimated that 250 million children worldwide were unable to read, write or count, even though about half of them had spent at least four years in school. As a later report put it: “The waste of human potential… confirms that getting children into the classroom is only half the battle.”

What should be done? For some, the answer was system-wide solutions: improve teacher training, reduce class sizes, strengthen accountability. At the University of Cambridge’s Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, however, researchers questioned whether this approach alone was sufficient.

“To achieve global ambitions for education you have to look beyond the system as a whole,” Centre Director, Professor Pauline Rose, reflects. “To make sure all children are both in school and learning, we should be asking which children are being left behind and why? The reason we were able to help to inform a shift in policy direction since 2015 is because we provided evidence that answered that question.”

The flaw of averages

The REAL Centre, in Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, undertakes research which aims to understand the barriers to education affecting disadvantaged children around the world, working in close partnership with research and policy organisations in the Global South and beyond.

Its establishment, in June 2015, coincided with the UN launching its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which succeeded the MDGs. These called for ‘inclusive and equitable quality education’, and signalled a change of emphasis; as Rose puts it, a “more explicit recognition for the need to restructure education support so that no-one gets left behind”.

This lent credence to an argument academics like Rose had made for some time. Both nationally and internationally, education investment strategies had often been based on school census data – sources which essentially provide a broad set of averages about children’s learning and attainment. The new emphasis on inclusive and equitable education, however, underlined the need to ‘disaggregate’ data to find out which children were being excluded. That meant introducing sources like household surveys into the mix, to enable analysis by demographic sub-category and socio-economic background.

“Obviously many governments already knew there were benefits to targeting particular groups of children,” Rose says. “The problem is that doing this, compared with a sweeping, catch-all programme, requires more resources, knowledge of which groups to target, and political commitment. You need to be able to make a very strong case.”

Since 2015, the REAL Centre has undertaken projects with partners in countries such as India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda and Tanzania – as well as much broader studies using global education data – which have contributed significantly to the evidence base that policy-makers need.

Disaggregating data is only part of the exercise. In collaboration with their international partners, researchers also aim to understand the specific, local obstacles to education, enabling them to make tailored recommendations with particular policy challenges in mind.

Intersecting disadvantages

Time and again, this research has demonstrated that particular groups of children – the very poorest, those with disabilities, those in remote and rural areas, and girls – are at the greatest risk of falling behind. In addition, REAL Centre studies persistently point to the importance of investing in their early primary education.

Disaggregated data from a cluster of countries, for example, has shown how by age eight, there is often already a gap of 20 percentage points or more between the number of children from the wealthiest 25% of the population who can read a single sentence, and the number from the poorest 25% who can do the same.

Too often, desperate poverty overlaps with other forms of marginalisation, which creates a “double disadvantage”. In some countries, for example, girls from the very lowest socio-economic backgrounds are significantly more likely than boys never to set foot inside a school.

Addressing this is not simply a matter of improving education systems: it involves understanding and tackling a complex network of social norms, economic problems, infrastructure issues and other barriers which conspire to exclude and constrain opportunities for millions of marginalised young people.

A girl living in a remote part of Africa or Asia, for example, may need secure transport just to get to school, while her family may also be dependent on her staying at home to work. “It seems an obvious point,” Rose adds, “but among policy-makers, who tend to look at how the quality of a system can be raised as a whole, it really is necessary to emphasise that unless we target these children according to their particular needs, not everyone will rise up evenly.”

A rising tide

If further inducement were needed, REAL Centre research has also proven the wisdom of the adage, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’. In other words: where education strategies target these marginalised groups successfully, their more-advantaged peers also feel the benefits.

One particularly powerful example emerged from a study in Tanzania with the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED), a long-standing REAL Centre partner which supports the education of disadvantaged girls.

As well as showing that girls who received bursaries from CAMFED were 30% more likely to stay in education than girls from similar backgrounds who did not, the study also found that the organisation’s work generated positive ‘spill-over’ effects for other children at the same schools. For every $100 spent per girl, per year, CAMFED’s work was found to lead to learning gains equivalent to an additional two years of education for all girls and boys at the schools where it operates.

“That finding came from a programme which, on paper, costs more per-head than many others given it is supporting those most difficult to reach,” Rose says. “We were able to show that it was actually benefiting far more children than the target group alone, and that the investment pays off.”

Sharper focus

Thanks in no small part to the work of the REAL Centre, policy-makers and aid organisations, at both international and national level, are beginning to implement measures which reflect their growing appreciation of this point.

In 2018, for example, the Centre provided evidence to the UK Government’s Department of International Development (DFID) for its Get Children Learning report, which ultimately resulted in a spending commitment of £20.5 million on research to inform early childhood education programming. Professor Charlotte Watts, DFID’s Chief Scientific Advisor, later wrote: “Evidence generated by the REAL Centre made a significant contribution to our thinking… in particular, tackling the learning crisis from the early years by supporting the most disadvantaged children to learn basic literacy and numeracy.”

Other evidence submissions have similarly prompted the UK Government to develop interventions addressing intersecting disadvantages. In particular, REAL Centre evidence informed an investment of £500 million to reach 1.9 million of the world’s most marginalised girls through its Leave No Girl Behind programme in 2016.

Internationally, the REAL Centre’s research informed the creation of an SDG indicator targeting minimum proficiency in reading and maths early – by grade 2 or 3 – as an essential precondition of ‘quality education for all’. In 2018, research led by Professor Nidhi Singal from the Centre helped to put inclusive education on the agenda of the world’s first Global Disability Summit, which eventually informed the launch of the World Bank’s Inclusive Education Initiative, targeting children with disabilities.

And a collaboration with the charity, Theirworld, proved pivotal in persuading UNICEF to commit 10% of its education budget to early childhood education. Kevin Watkins, a former CEO of Save The Children, later wrote in a UNICEF report that its thinking on education: “drew almost entirely on REAL analysis… which has reached a global audience of policy-makers.”

The Centre’s work is also shaping change at a national and local level. In Ghana, for example, a study by a team including Professor Ricardo Sabates showed the benefits of that country’s Complementary Basic Education Programme, which provides catch-up learning for out-of-school children. At the time, this led to the Ghanaian Government committing 1% of its education budget to the programme’s continuation from 2019; enough to benefit about 450,000 disadvantaged children.

Meanwhile, the evidence gathered about CAMFED’s work in Tanzania helped it to raise £18 million in funding to help more marginalised children, including 16,200 marginalised girls. The partnership continues to go from strength to strength: in October 2021, REAL and CAMFED announced a new collaboration, which will explore how to scale up one of its programmes throughout Tanzania and across sub-Saharan Africa.

“There is a huge amount more to be done, but the progress we have made is cause for hope,” Rose says. “Together with our partners, we have been able to make a powerful case that solving the biggest challenges in global education starts with investing in the most marginalised children, as early as we can. If we can raise the floor on education by creating systems that work for them, we will find that we create systems that work for everyone.”

By Tom Kirk

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.