Not for the sake of it - Why we need proper research on girls’ education

I went to a brilliant event in Cambridge last week, on girls’ education in developing countries.  The event launched the Research on Education, Access and Learning (REAL) centre, which is a new joint venture between Cambridge University and Camfed. Camfed is a ‘boutique’ Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) based in Cambridge who do innovative and edgy things that promote girls’ education and economic empowerment across Africa. The centre will promote education as a vehicle for sustainable development in developing countries, pioneering research into how to overcome the obstacles to education which include poverty, gender, ethnicity, language and disability. 

David Armstrong_REAL event_CambridgeThe great and the good of girls’ education were at the event, and I was genuinely humbled by the calibre and the character of the speakers.  For example, Julia Gillard – the straight-talking former Australian Prime Minister – set out a compelling case up front about the nature and scale of the education challenge.  It was a challenge that meant the response from the international community needed to “bust beyond business as usual” (her words). 

My role was to facilitate a panel session with three genuine leaders in this field: Lucy Lake, the CEO of Camfed; Professor Pauline Rose, the new head of the REAL centre; and Fiona Mavingha, the founder of a force-to-be-reckoned-with pan-African network of woman leaders with a passion for promoting girls’ education.

In addition to the inspiration and shared sense of purpose, this event was fundamentally about research; good research, proper research, rigorous research and, most importantly, research that can make a difference to policy and delivery on the ground.

This struck a chord with me for two reasons: firstly, I started my professional career as a researcher in Oxford, Warwick and Belfast.  I did a PhD and a series of publications, mostly on the economics of education and the transition from school to work.  I loved it - the intellectual freedom and the quest for proper facts and insight – and it’s left me with a lasting soft spot for the research community.

Secondly, since those days, I’ve moved on, lost my hair, and now work for PwC where I’m responsible for a big programme of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) called the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC).  The programme is focused on improving learning outcomes for 1m marginalised girls, and we’re doing this through 18 innovative education projects in 17 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. 

PwC’s role in GEC is fundamentally a finance one, not a research one.  We facilitate and manage payments to on-the-ground contractors on behalf of DFID. But as part of the programme we’ve driven the projects pretty hard to develop robust research and evaluation plans.  This has at times made us very unpopular.  But the upside is that we’ll soon be sitting on a potentially awesome dataset on girls’ education – quantitative and qualitative, and all on a consistent basis between countries and projects. 

Such data provides any self-respecting researcher with a mouth-watering research opportunity.  And as the PwC leader of the GEC programme, it sets at my door a huge responsibility to ensure that the research is done well and, most importantly, communicated in a manner that can affect change in the real world. 

This is a massive responsibility.  We’ll be delighted in the GEC if we can improve education outcomes for 1m girls.  But we’ll be even more delighted if the insight and learning on how best to do that, can drive sustainable change throughout the global system. 

The new REAL centre, is a great example of academia eschewing its traditional ivory tower, and getting its hands dirty with delivery.  REAL’s research will try to combine academic rigour with practical relevance.  Great!  All of us who work in the field should seek to do the same.  We certainly will on the GEC.  Failure to do so would be an unforgiveable missed opportunity.

Picture: S.Ferrucci, Camfed

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