30 July 2013

New DFID Education Policy

DFID released a new "position paper" on education policy yesterday, with lots to like, and lots that chimes with how we are thinking about education at OPM.

First and foremost, the paper rightly places learning front and centre. It's really quite astonishing how neglected actual learning has been in the race to get kids into school, though as this paper shows this is starting to change.

Then there are mentions of the importance of noncognitive skills, of conceiving of education as a process of lifelong learning - including early child development, preschool, through to tertiary and technical education - and focusing on value for money*.

Then there are interesting innovations, such as Payment by results (reminiscent of CGD's "cash on delivery"), and exploring new ways of working with low cost private schools in Lagos and Sindh (OPM is working on research and evaluation for the Lagos project).

And lots of emphasis on research, including highlighting the Young Lives survey, talk of further longitudinal surveys, and a mention of the ESSPIN Nigeria survey some of my colleagues have been working on.

So what's missing?

Although the paper is right to place learning at the heart of the agenda, I don't think it really acknowledges just how little we actually know about how to improve learning. As Lant Pritchett demonstrates in his new book - if you add up all of the results from individual evaluations of various inputs, the total impact on learning outcomes just doesn't come close to getting us to where we want to be. 

This implies we need some radical experimentation. Payment by results and low cost private schools are two promising avenues, but given that this is, in DFID's words, a "learning crisis" - are these enough?

So what to do? Well firstly just more experiments, both large and small, and urgently. 

One idea would be to listen to the one thing that J-PAL and IPA are really pushing. After over a hundred large scale experiments and evaluations of education projects, they have one big idea, which happens to fit pretty neatly with DFID's agenda. This is remedial education, using young low-cost teaching assistants to help the weakest kids catch up. This is an idea developed by Indian NGO Pratham and with rigorous experimental evidence of impact, which IPA has taken and is working with the Government of Ghana to replicate and evaluate on a national scale, working through government systems. Why isn't DFID funding the next programme like this?

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*As a sad little footnote, unsurprisingly DFID's worst value for money in education seems to be coming from, you guessed it;
"The cost of classroom construction, for example, ranges from $1,400 in Ethiopia to $30,400 in South Sudan, where years of conflict have dramatically increased the cost of materials and the mobility of skilled personnel.

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