A student in Senegal, where the Global Partnership for Education held its financing conference. Photo by: Chantal Rigaud / GPE / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — The United Kingdom has published a new education policy for its development work, which focuses on quality teachers, reforming education systems, and reaching the most marginalized children.

The policy has been broadly welcomed by education experts, who described it as “ambitious” and praised the Department for International Development for prioritizing better learning outcomes throughout the document, rather than traditional metrics around access.

Joseph Nhan-O'Reilly, head of education policy and advocacy at Save the Children, said he was “delighted at the focus on teachers, systems, and the most marginalised, and that the U.K.’s principal focus will be on addressing the learning crisis in basic education.” He also welcomed the focus on early learning, which he described as a “first for DFID.”

However, some advocates told Devex there was a disconnect between the ambitious agenda set out in the policy and DFID’s financial commitment to education, after its offering at the Global Partnership for Education conference in Senegal last week fell short.

“We really like the policy refresh and we are pleased it’s come … [but] if you’re going to have all these plans, then you need to have more [money] available,” said Lucy Drescher, head of parliamentary advocacy at campaign group RESULTS. A lot could be done by “getting people to think in different ways,” she said, “but DFID will also need to spend more to make a difference.”

On Friday, DFID chief Penny Mordaunt announced a 225 million British pounds ($320 million) pledge to the GPE over three years — 125 million pounds ($174.6 million) lower than civil society groups had been campaigning for, and less than the amount pledged by the country in 2014. That raised concerns about the extent to which DFID is prioritizing education, Drescher said.

Around 9 percent of U.K. aid has been spent on education in recent years, according to a DFID spokesperson, but this is the first time the department has updated its education policy since 2013. The policy “refresh” was announced last July after an inquiry from the International Development Committee, which oversees DFID’s work.

New priorities

The document names “raising the bar on teaching quality” as its top priority. “We will support national leaders ready to take a fresh look at how their workforces are recruited, trained and motivated, so that they can make the bold changes that are needed,” it states.

The second major priority is improving education systems, across both the public and nonstate sectors, to make them “more accountable, effective and inclusive of poor and marginalised children.” This includes programs to improve efficiency within education systems and boost domestic resource mobilization.

The third pillar of the policy focuses on poor and marginalised children, especially girls, children with disabilities, and refugees. DFID proposes getting country governments to “take ownership” of the issue, developing “gender-responsive education plans, policies and budgets,” and mainstreaming the inclusion of children with disabilities into all schools.

The new policy also puts more emphasis on learning outcomes, according to Joe Wales, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, as exemplified by the plan to introduce a headline indicator on whether children are learning.

That reflects a growing consensus in recent years around the need to look beyond getting children into schools, and focus more on learning goals and fundamental changes to school systems.

“There is a much stronger emphasis on learning and learning outcomes which comes across very centrally [in the policy],” Wales said. The plan for a headline indicator “seems to suggest they are thinking of it much more rigorously than they were before.”

However, “there will be challenges in how to measure this in practice and have uniform learning outcomes across lots of contexts,” he added.

Wales also said the document demonstrates “much more thinking about education as a system overall … not about individual interventions,” and that it seems to take “the politics of education much more seriously.” The strategy recognizes that there are “big political challenges” around implementing education reform policies, something which was “absent in the language” of previous strategies, he said.

“There’s a recognition there that this isn’t just about technical capacity building … It’s not even about having a holistic view about the way the system works … It’s about how do you engage with the incentives that different actors have and the political realities that there are in those countries,” he said.

Uncertainty around nonstate actors

DFID’s direct support for low-cost private schools has been a source of controversy for the department, especially its support of Bridge International Academies, a for-profit school chain operating in a number of countries across Africa, through a grant for its work in Nigeria.

Where the 2013 position paper was clear that DFID would support some low-cost private schools, the new policy is vaguer and talks instead about supporting governments to set up public-private partnerships. The policy also talks about the need to “strengthen accountability for the quality of nonstate provision,” and ensure low-cost schools are more inclusive.

Wales described the position as “unclear,” but said it does appear to “leave the door open” for DFID to do “some potentially interesting strategies” with private actors.  

Nhan-O'Reilly agreed that while the policy was “vague” about DFID’s position on funding low-cost private schools, as a whole it “points to a desire on their part to grow this work.”

Education experts expressed mixed feelings about the discussion of PPPs, which DFID positions as a way of utilizing U.K. expertise to “support decision makers to develop good regulatory arrangements … and public-private partnerships which improve access to education for poor and marginalized children.”

ODI’s Wales said that while it is “worth experimenting” with PPPs, there are still a “lot of uncertainties about nonstate PPP engagement,” and their efficacy is “unproven.”

The DFID policy states: “We must remain conscious that how we invest in the non-state sector matters; we need to develop and be guided by the evidence base and to experiment and adapt to ensure our investments drive maximum impact.”

Susannah Hares, international director at Ark — a U.K. charity that has a team advising developing country governments on structuring education PPPs — described DFID’s approach in the policy as “sensible and non-ideological.”

“The policy makes the case that where public systems are failing of course [you] would look to alternative systems, but this needs to be done with strong accountability mechanisms in place … and I’m glad the policy calls that out,” she said. The charity has previously advised governments to “pilot cautiously.”

Nhan-O'Reilly said he welcomed the paper’s emphasis on an evidence-based approach to PPPs. “In its own words, the test that [PPPs] are working will be whether access is increased and learning improved for the most marginalised, so we’ll be watching this with interest,” he said.

Children in crisis

Nhan-O'Reilly praised the policy for prioritizing children living in conflict and crisis-affected countries, saying “the U.K. has played a critical role in getting the world to recognize the importance of education in emergencies and fragile states, and we’re delighted to see it intends to prioritize that work.”

He said an important “test” of that commitment would be whether DFID continues to support Education Cannot Wait, a fund set up during the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 to reposition education as a priority within the sector. The fund is up for replenishment and, while DFID has historically been its biggest donor, the disappointment of the U.K. pledge to the GPE has thrown that into doubt for many.

However, Wales questioned the policy’s decision to categorize crisis-affected children alongside children with disabilities and other marginalized groups. The highest proportion of out-of-school children are in crisis-affected countries and “the reasons why they are excluded and the [education] systems are not developing in those countries are quite different from the reasons why people are excluded in other types of contexts,” he explained.


Finally, the policy includes plans to launch an “EdTech Research and Innovation Hub” to “help decision makers from developing countries make informed decisions about investing in EdTech and provide a platform for engagement between governments, tech companies and innovators.”  

The U.K. is a leading provider of EdTech, as showcased at last month’s British Educational Training and Technology Show in London, which was attended by a number of education ministers from developing countries as part of the Education World Forum, as Devex reported.

However, the paper acknowledges that EdTech “is not a silver bullet” and that many primarily hardware-driven interventions have failed in the past.

And while some advocates worried about the policy’s promise to offer developing countries the “best of British” when it comes to “U.K. expertise in education,” others said the approach can be a “real opportunity” to share lessons, according to Hares.

Read more Devex coverage on education.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.