With the support of the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) is supporting 37 projects working in 18 countries. On a recent trip to Uganda, I had the opportunity to see six of these projects (listed below) in action. There were a few insights that struck me:
Working with local government: The Director for Education at the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) is a formidable woman. Founder of the 150,000 strong Uganda Teachers’ Union, she believes in ‘results-orientated activism’ and talks of the need to unfreeze people from their old attitudes and to share the dream of a transformed Ugandan education system. She was one of 11 central government education officials to participate in a recent GEC workshop in Uganda.
Along with her colleagues and 25 representatives from the six projects, she took part in discussions on what influences both teachers and learners in the classroom and the key drivers for change. She heard video and narrative presentations from the projects on how teachers are being supported to improve girls’ learning outcomes. When invited to give feedback at the end of the workshop, she said she was glad she had attended rather than delegating the meeting to a colleague, and commended the projects on their work. This constitutes significant progress from six months ago, following KCCA’s halt on all NGO activity in the city while their alignment to government policy was reassessed. Thanks to careful negotiation, the GEC projects now have the full cooperation and support of KCCA to implement activities, with clear instructions from the Director of Education to “be around, be more in touch, and be coordinated.”
Embracing monitoring and evaluation (M&E); One of the most striking features of the GEC is the compulsory and consistent adherence to project level M&E frameworks which include rigorous baseline, midline, and endline data collection. The rationale behind this rests largely on the recognised gap in knowledge about what types and combinations of intervention work best to secure improved learning outcomes for children in developing countries. Evidence exists about the barriers to enrolment and retention at school and there is a clear narrative around the types of school and classroom based changes that are needed in order to promote active learning. But there is little demonstrable evidence of what leads to improved learning outcomes.
Whilst projects have questioned and at times railed against the time and effort involved in fulfilling the complex monitoring requirements, grant holders are now seeing the benefits of them in terms of the evidence base they are building. For some, it has resulted in a shift in the way they view their project – rather than focussing solely on achieving the intended outcomes as might usually be the case, they are eager to work with GEC monitors to learn whether their innovation works and identify the key features which lead to improved attendance or improved learning outcomes. In one sense the GEC might be seen as a set of 37 action research projects – put together they have the capacity to provide significant evidence of what works, and what does not.
Changing attitudes: A number of GEC projects include in their ‘theory of change’ a focus on reducing corporal punishment as a route to improving girls’ regular attendance at school and their learning outcomes. Visiting a number of project sites in Uganda brought an opportunity to explore this issue a bit more deeply and led to the following observations:
Corporal punishment takes many forms: it can be premeditated and forewarned or it can be spontaneous. It can mean a rap across the fingers for untidy handwriting, some forceful herding of lagging pupils or more violent hitting. It can be a stick raised threateningly, or simply the constant presence of the cane in the corner of the classroom. It is prevalent across the spectrum of school settings, from the most elite school to the most rural, and is accepted and expected by parents, teachers and learners alike.
When an intervention aims to change people’s attitudes about this form of violence, the strongest resistance to change often comes from the parents, who go so far as bringing canes into school to replace the ones the teachers have discarded. Conversations with teachers at six different schools brought up the same consistent response when asked what changes when you put down the cane and turn to other forms of discipline: the children no longer fear the teachers. Fear to come to school late, fear to answer a question in class in case they get it wrong, fear to ask for help with a problem, fear to confide in their teacher. As one teacher put it, with a note of surprise that this would be the result: “the social distance between us has reduced; it has changed the way we view each other.” Such deep change needs time to take root – this is a challenge of time bound projects but one which is exciting in its potential.
There is no doubt that securing regular attendance at school and meaningful learning outcomes for girls in Uganda is a complex challenge, as it is in the other 16 countries in which GEC projects are being implemented. To me, it’s clear that the best chance of success lies in change which is embedded in the local context and supported by local and national authorities, so that the effects of change last well beyond the four year programme span and offer girls a firm foundation for their future.
Descriptions of the GEC-funded projects in Uganda, listed below, can be found here.