UK aid spend on education must do more to improve learning for children

27 Apr 2022

  • New ICAI review assesses the results of UK aid support to primary and lower-secondary education since 2015, with a focus on girls’ education.
  • Report finds UK aid-funded education programming has been ambitious, mainly well implemented and relevant to the needs of marginalised children, especially hard-to-reach girls, though barriers remain.
  • Government’s claim that UK supported 15.6 million children in education is reasonable, but report highlights that FCDO is not yet able to judge the impact on learning of many of its programmes.
  • ICAI calls on government to focus on achieving better quality learning in future to help tackle the global learning crisis.
  • Report awards a green-amber score and makes five recommendations.

UK aid spend on education has been ambitious and mainly well implemented, but the UK must focus more on ensuring future work improves children’s learning, a new review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has found.

ICAI’s latest review assesses the results of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) education programmes since 2015, with a particular focus on girls’ education which is a long-standing UK government priority.

The review found that the UK has contributed to improvements and that its work was relevant to the needs of marginalised children, particularly hard-to-reach girls – though significant barriers still exist. ICAI judged the government’s claim that it supported 15.6 million children in education to be “reasonable”. But the aid watchdog reported that FCDO does not currently track learning achievements which would provide a better measure of its support for quality, or ‘decent education’. ICAI recognised that FCDO is working on an approach for this.

The report warned that “vast challenges” remain to improving the quality of education and learning in partner countries, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. ICAI awarded a green-amber score and made five recommendations.

ICAI Commissioner, Tarek Rouchdy, said:

“The UK has developed an ambitious portfolio of programmes to support education in developing countries that has helped over 15 million children since 2015, including marginalised girls, children with disabilities and children living in conflict zones.

“The UK has committed to tackling the learning crisis, where children are attending school but learning very little. To do that the government must focus not only on providing education but providing good-quality education. Our review highlights that FCDO must do more to ensure that future spending on education improves children’s learning”.

The review from the UK’s aid watchdog found that FCDO had set ambitious expectations for its education programmes, which were largely met in the programmes reviewed by ICAI. It reported that the UK has been seen as a global leader in addressing inequalities in education, finding, for example, that 80% of programming worth over £1 million had targeted activities for girls. However, ICAI highlighted that a quarter of activities targeting girls did not meet FCDO’s expectations. It also found that the impacts of some interventions for girls were unlikely to be sustained over time.

ICAI reported positively on FCDO’s support for children in conflict zones, highlighting that the Education Cannot Wait fund – of which the UK is the largest contributor – has supported 4.6 million children in conflict zones to access education since 2016.

While the focus on children with disabilities has grown over the review period, ICAI said FCDO was unable to track how many children with disabilities had been reached. It also reported stakeholders’ concerns that the UK’s focus on this area has decreased recently.

The aid watchdog welcomed FCDO’s strong influencing role which helped strengthen multilateral education programming, although it said further progress is required on learning. It also reported that the presence of knowledgeable UK education advisers in partner countries had improved the effectiveness of multilateral as well as bilateral programmes supported by the UK.

The review found that the UK has made positive contributions to national education systems strengthening and has played a significant role in helping those working in the education sector in partner countries collaborate more effectively. However, it noted that the UK has made slow progress on mobilising new sources of international finance for education.

ICAI praised the FCDO for taking effective action to adapt its programmes to limit the effects of COVID-19, including through community-based learning and supporting schools to reopen safely.

ICAI warned that major reductions to the UK’s aid budget have affected UK bilateral and multilateral aid to education and may pose a risk to sustaining the UK’s influence on education globally.

ICAI made five recommendations for government, including that FCDO should:

  • place more focus on children’s learning
  • accelerate work to improve data collection on children’s learning
  • ensure it maintains a consistent focus on girls during programme design and implementation
  • have a greater focus on dissemination and uptake of evidence of ‘what works’ for marginalised groups
  • enhance the convening and influencing role it plays in partner countries, to promote the impact of aid to education on learning.

Read the review

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