The Young Lives Longitudinal Study – Methodological Considerations

By Angela W Little, UCL Institute of Education.

younglivesIn 2000 the Millennium Declaration issued by the United Nations identified poverty reduction as a main development goal for the twenty-first century. More specific goals were set by the international community in 2002, including the achievement of universal primary education by 2015. It was in this context that the Young Lives study was established in 2001. Through extensive household, school and community surveys, the Young Lives study follows 12,000 children from two age cohorts in Ethiopia, India, Peru and the state of Andhra Pradesh in India.  These comprise 2,000 children in each country born in 2001-02 (the younger cohort) and 1,000 children born in 1994-95 (the older cohort). The Young Lives study offers insights on the causes and consequences of poverty and the mediating roles, inter alia, education, health, economic conditions, community and cultural circumstances.

Young Lives offers a unique longitudinal data set derived from linked household and school surveys and embedded small scale qualitative studies. It employs longitudinal designs of two types. The first involves repeated measures of child development (e.g. cognitive development, health, nutrition and social support), measured in their homes and gathered alongside key household and community-level development indicators and in their schools. Longitudinal studies aid our understanding of causation, prognosis, stability, change and development. By studying two age cohorts, longitudinally and simultaneously, cohort and time-period effects can be separated and extensive sub group analysis can be conducted within cohorts, across cohorts and across countries. The second involves repeated measures of learning achievement during the school year in a school survey. This design focuses on the school experience of the Young Lives children within a period of nine months during which school and teacher-level influences may be considered largely ‘fixed’. In the presence of extensive longitudinal data on children’s early development and home backgrounds, this enables us to explore the influence of a range of in-school and out-of-school factors that explain learning progress during a school grade with well-defined curricular content.

A recent special issue of the Oxford Review of Education School quality counts: evidence from developing countries brings together a number of studies of the role of education in mediating the causes and consequences of poverty (Little and Rolleston, 2014). Methodological, logistical and ethical challenges are addressed. These include ensuring the integrity of the panel data and cohort, maintaining an appropriate degree of consistency across countries in terms of design and measurement, without compromising policy relevance at the national level, and balancing the sometimes competing demands for cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence (Boyden and James, 2014). In the context of Andhra Pradesh Singh (2014) shows how attendance in private and public pre-schools influences the receptive vocabulary and quantitative skills of children by the time they are ready to enter primary school, even after controlling for home background. In Peru the relationships between socioeconomic status (SES) measured at the age of 1, achievement in mathematics 10 years later and opportunities to learn (the number of hours of mathematics classes per year, curriculum coverage, the quality of teachers’ feedback, and level of cognitive demand of learning tasks) are explored. Cueto, Guerrero, Leon, Zapata and Freire (2014) demonstrate that home background at age 1 not only predicts of achievement at age 10 but also the number of exercises attempted by children.  The findings point to a highly unequal educational system in which relatively poor children have fewer opportunities to learn in school, pointing to an important area of policy concern regarding equity.  In Andhra Pradesh, James and Woodhead (2014) explore changes over time in the way that parents make school choices for their children. Using a combination of quantitative and qualitative data from Andhra Pradesh they demonstrate the dynamic and diverse character of school choice and an increasing propensity of children to change schools during the early primary school years – from government to private schools, private to private, government to government and private to government. From Ethiopia Frost and Little (2014) explore student learning practices in 776 mathematics classes in relation to the official prescription that 30% of time should be spent on student-centred and no more than 70% on teacher-centred activity. The data reveal that the 30% target was not reached and that more time was spent ‘off task’ than on ‘on task’ than in student-centred activity. Students were more likely to be ‘on task’ rather than ‘off task’ if taught by a female teacher with a diploma or a degree, a teacher who had not been absent recently or  a teacher who had received supervision within the last four weeks. Physical resources at school and classroom level were of less importance than the quality of teachers. From Vietnam Rolleston and Krutikova (2014) examine the effects of home background, school resources and class-peers’ backgrounds on student learning progress during one school year, when teacher and school factors are largely held constant. They demonstrate considerable equality of opportunity in the Vietnamese system in terms of basic standards offered by schools. However students from more advantaged backgrounds have better access to internet technology in schools and are more likely to follow paid extra classes. Students from disadvantaged home backgrounds perform less well, but there is only weak evidence that schooling contributes substantially to a widening of achievement gaps during Grade 5. In the final paper Rolleston (2014) explores how learning gaps evolve over time between different social groups in each of the four countries and how education systems vary in their efficacy in promoting learning and equity. Importantly the paper demonstrates the impact of years of school experience on learning outcomes.

As these papers demonstrate, at a time when the focus of much international education research and intervention is shifting to school quality, it is important to retain a focus on the learning effects of school attendance per se, especially in those countries where enrolment in the basic cycle of education is not yet universal. By exploiting the methodological advantages of longitudinal studies Young Lives demonstrate the importance of both the quantity and quality of the schooling experience for learning outcomes.

Angela Little is Emerita Professor, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. Email:

This blog is based on a paper presented at the 59th Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES), Washington, DC., 8-13 March 2015.

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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In Search of Sustainable TVSD Financing: It’s Not (Only) About the Money, Money Money

Robert Palmer, NORRAG

moneyTechnical and vocational skills development (TVSD) spans many domains; in many countries it exists in schools and institutes under the authority of multiple ministries, including of course the ministry of education and ministry of labour; it exists in the private sector in enterprises and private vocational institutes; it exists at pre-tertiary and tertiary levels; and there are huge amounts of TVSD in both formal and informal economies.

The financing of TVSD is equally complex, and can come in the form of public funding from national government (e.g. via the direct payment of teacher salaries or grants to institutions, or by tax incentives, scholarships, training vouchers), from individuals (via training fees), from enterprises (e.g. via fee payment, in-house training, levy-payments and other means), and from national or sectoral training funds (e.g. via grants, levy exemptions etc).  TVSD financing can equally come from development partners – both DAC and non-DAC – in the form of project grants, soft loans or budget support.

Sustainable TVSD financing is not simply about getting more money for the pot, or even about using the money in the pot more efficiently. TVSD financing is intimately linked to the development and sustainability of quality, relevant and equitable training systems. TVSD financing mechanisms can themselves be used to promote TVSD policy objectives. It is therefore imperative that TVSD financing issues be discussed alongside TVSD objectives. However, more often than not, policy makers and politicians may view them more separately; and this degree of separation appears to have been carried into the post-2015 discussions on technical and vocational skills.

TVSD financing and post-2015 financing: in different silos

Over the last 10 years, the issue of technical and vocational skills has been rising on the policy and political agendas of many governments around the world (e.g see NORRAG News 48). In the post-2015 development agenda discussions over the last three years, technical and vocational skills have featured in many of the proposals put forward (see NORRAG working paper #6 Education and Skills Post-2015: What Evidence, Whose Perspectives?), and in the latest formal proposal of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), technical and vocational skills are the topic of three targets under the education goal. Accompanying this interest in securing ‘technical and vocational skills’ as part of a post-2015 education target have been some more recent discussions about what kinds of indicators might be used (e.g. see UN Statistical Commission, UNESCO Global Monitoring Report 2015, p.285-290, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network). Inevitably, thinking on indicators for technical and vocational skills has been accompanied by discussions about lack of data and problems of monitoring (see the 2015 UNESCO GMR, p.127); an issue that has long been raised, including by this author (e.g. see 2008 paper on monitoring skills, and in earlier NORRAG blogs here, here, and here).

Meanwhile, the wider education post-2015 discussions have moved beyond talking just about indicators and monitoring to also talking about financing. Discussion has tended to focus on two main types of financing; including from governments (e.g. % of government budget allocated to education) and from donors (e.g. % of ODA or its equivalent allocated to education), with financing from other sources including the private sector being mentioned, but getting less attention. For general education, delivered in schools, this kind of financing focus on government budgets and donor money might make sense. But for technical and vocational skills financing, this focus is very narrow. It ignores what in many countries is the largest source of technical and vocational skills financing; direct and indirect financing from enterprises, including for on the job training in apprenticeships.

Forget about the price tag

Meanwhile, the April 2015 Education For All Global Monitoring Report 2015 provides the latest cost estimates for part of the proposed post-2015 education agenda – achieving universal pre-primary, primary and lower secondary education completion – but does not attempt to cost other aspects of the proposed agenda, including technical and vocational skills.

Indeed, no-one seems to be even talking about the financing needs of technical and vocational skills in the post-2015 agenda, let alone trying to estimate what they might be. There are obvious reasons for not trying to estimate the cost of technical and vocational skills in the post-2015 development agenda; there is no clear focus (on what kind of technical and vocational skills should be measured), no real target (the OWG proposed target talks of a x% the number of youth and adults who have technical and vocational skills), and insufficient data.

However, standing back from a focus on trying to cost a post-2015 technical and vocational skills target – which for reasons above is not possible – it is still worrying that the post-2015 financing discussions appear not to have addressed the mechanisms and framework of financing of technical and vocational skills, including continuing vocational education and training (CVET). And the July 2015 Financing for Development (FfD) conference in Addis Ababa also does not look like it will cover this; the draft outcome document of the Addis Ababa Accord, simply refers to the need to ‘enhance technical and vocational education and training’.

TVSD financing discussions among the TVSD constituency  

But we should perhaps not be too harsh on the post-2015 and FfD documents. The TVSD community’s own documents are not well developed, or not up to date, on TVSD financing.

For example the 2012 Recommendations of the Third International Congress on TVSD, simply noted the need to: ‘diversify sources of funding by involving all stakeholders, in particular through the use of appropriate incentive mechanisms’, and to ‘promote targeted funding schemes to facilitate access of disadvantaged groups’.

Meanwhile, the draft revision (2015) of UNESCO’s normative instrument concerning TVSD, goes only a little further on the specifics of TVSD financing, noting that: ‘Incentive mechanisms and regulatory frameworks should be set up to diversify sources of funding and involve all stakeholders’, and that such stakeholders include enterprises, individuals, local authorities and public-private partnerships. It notes the importance of giving TVSD institutions greater operational and financial autonomy so that they can build partnerships and generate revenue. And, critically, it notes the need for more financing mechanisms that can increase efficiency, stimulate the demand for TVSD, and promote better outcomes by ‘shifting the traditional input-based models to more performance-based financing ones’.

There have certainly been several recent initiatives with regard to TVSD financing; for example: CEDEFOP’s work on financing training, including setting up a database on financing adult learning in EU countries; a European Commission organized workshop on ‘Financing VET’ in November 2014; and reviews of TVSD financing in developing countries. And there are several older pieces that are still key reference texts on TVSD financing (e.g. Falch and Oosterbeek, 2011; Johanson, 2009; Ziderman, 2002).

Just as we need to see a stronger connection between the technical and vocational skills community who are already working on improving TVSD indicators, and the technocrats who are drafting post-2015 education indicators, we need to see a stronger connection between the TVSD financing experts and the financing for development experts. This currently does not look like it will happen unless the international TVET community moves rapidly to make its voice heard.

Robert Palmer is an independent education and skills consultant. He also supports the Editor of NORRAG News and runs NORRAG NEWSBite. Email: Tweets @SkillsImpact

>>See all NORRAG Blogs on TVSD / Technical and vocational education and training

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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Where do the Proposed Education Targets Fall Short? The View of the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2015


GMR2015Below we highlight some of the key issues related to education post-2015 raised in the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2015 that was published today.

Overview of the proposed education targets

  • The proposed education SDG (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all) and targets are ‘considerably broader than the corresponding Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with their narrow focus on primary education completion and gender parity. The SDG targets more closely reflect the holistic vision of the Education for All (EFA) movement, which recognized that all levels of education were interrelated’.
  • The proposed SDG targets are more oriented to outcomes. Moreover, they ambitiously shift the emphasis to higher levels of education, referring to universal secondary completion and equal access to tertiary education. They also aim at improvement in skills needed for decent jobs, including through entrepreneurship, and acquiring knowledge of sustainable development though education that prioritizes global citizenship, human rights, peace, cultural diversity and gender equality’.

Where do the proposed education targets fall short?

  • ‘Targets need to be specific and clear. Several of the proposed SDG education targets lack specificity and clarity in the concepts employed and outcomes expected’.
  • ‘Some targets are not measurable. If targets cannot be adequately measured now or in the foreseeable future, accountability is threatened’.
    • ‘Some targets refer to outcomes for which data are currently unavailable’.For example, the upgrading of education facilities to be ‘effective learning environments’ (proposed SDG education target 4a), while laudable, would be a major challenge for measurement’.
  • ‘The importance of realistic and relevant targets. Targets that have little chance of being met in a 15 year time-frame are unlikely to receive political commitment, support and cooperation from governments, donors, non-government organizations and local communities. The more ambitious the proposed target, the more unlikely it is to be met. For example, ensuring universal upper secondary education in the next 15 years is beyond the reach of most countries. At current rates of progress, even universal lower secondary completion is not projected to be reached in low and middle income countries until the latter half of the 21st century’.
  • ‘Equity issues are not clearly articulated. The essence of the goal is the achievement of inclusive and equitable education of good quality. But the ambiguous language of some targets could lead to marginalized groups being left behind. The lack of reference to free and compulsory basic education – pre-primary, primary and lower secondary education – has worrying implications’.

Finance necessary to achieve SDG education goals

The EFA Global Monitoring Report does not provide cost estimates for the entire SDG education agenda, but it does for a part of it:

  • To achieve only part of the post-2015 education agenda – achieving universal pre-primary, primary and lower secondary education completion – the total annual external financing gap (the difference between the estimated cost of achieving basic education and the estimated available domestic resources) is projected to average $US22 billion annually between 2015 and 2030.
  • Almost half of this, or US$10.6 billion pertains to low income countries: this is 4.5 times the total aid to pre-primary, primary and general secondary education in low income countries in 2012.
  • However, total aid to education is predicted to level off in coming years, stagnating between 2014 and 2017 in low income countries at about US$3.7 billion per annum.
  • ‘Clearly things must change drastically if there is to be any hope of carrying out the new agenda’, says the EFA report.

Next month, in Incheon, Republic of Korea, the international community will reconvene 15 years after the Dakar World Education Forum. They will issue a statement on post-2015 education priorities, together with a framework for action, which is intended to contribute to the final formulation of the SDG education goal and targets.

In September 2015 the international community will adopt a new development agenda, including an education goal and targets, during the United Nations General Assembly.

>> Read the full EFA Global Monitoring Report 2015.

Quotation marks above denote text taken verbatim from the report.

 >>See all NORRAG blogs on education post-2015

>>See NORRAG working papers on education post-2015

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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India’s Skills Challenge: Reforming Vocational Education and Training to Harness the Demographic Dividend

By Santosh Mehrotra, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

indiaThe Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) system in India needs to expand very rapidly if it is to serve the interests of the 5-6  million youth joining the labour force every year, and of an economy that is both growing rapidly as well diversifying fast.

However, the majority of India’s workforce either has less than primary education or is illiterate (53%). Moreover, less than 10% of the workforce has acquired vocational skills, although that proportion is higher if we take only the non-agricultural workforce into account (20%), and even higher if we take only the industrial workforce into account (44%). While the increase in percentage seems good it is far below comparable countries and needs to increase.

India’s skill development system has four parts. First, a very narrowly based pre-employment training system of Industrial Training Institutes (grown to about 12,000 in the last 7 years, of which 2,000 are public, the rest private). Second, there are a rapidly growing number of formal vocational training providers  that are being incubated by the National Skill Development Corporation after 2010, based on a for-profit business model, though somewhat subsidised by government. Third, vocational education is offered in senior secondary schools in classes 11-12 (which barely enrol 5% of the relevant age cohort); since 2012 government secondary schools have also begun to offer vocational education in classes 9-10, thanks to the introduction of the National Skills Qualification Framework. Finally, there is the in-firm training provided on recruitment by companies (but only 16% of Indian companies provides such training, and that too only large ones, in contrast to 85% of firms in China).

India must therefore expand TVET to cater to the majority already in the labour force who have informally acquired skills, so that recognition of prior skills and learning becomes systemic. The National Skills Qualification Framework (the base document for which was drafted by a task force of the government led by the author) makes provisions for this monumental task.

The productivity of India’s workforce is lower than many comparator countries. If India is to become a major manufacturing power, productivity in the economy needs to improve significantly. We have to create an ecosystem that promotes and rewards skills and productivity;  Government, industry and private vocational training providers need to work together to realize this objective.

To realize India’s demographic dividend we need to meet India’s skills challenge. Since economic growth took off over the last decade, non-agricultural jobs have been expanding at a rate roughly comparable to the rate at which the labour force is growing. However, it is the quality of jobs that are a matter of concern. If skilled workers don’t become available to industry at a rate comparable to the growth of demand for skills, manufacturers will increasingly resort to more capital-intensive technologies, which will lock India into a pattern of growth that is synch with its comparative advantage – relative abundant labour power.

Only large firms offer apprenticeships, and in a country with a workforce of 485 million, there are under 300,000 formal apprentices. The rest are all informal apprentices, who tend to be exploited by their employers. Changes are certainly needed in the Apprenticeship Act 1961.

While some progress towards reforming TVET in India has been made, a huge and broad ranging agenda for reform lies before the government and industry.

Industry needs to get involved to a much greater extent than ever before in TVET. Both large industries, many of which are engaged in in-house training, as well as small and medium enterprises, will need to find ways to increase in-firm training. Industry must make hiring formally trained skilled personnel an integral part of its human resource policy and include processes and practice to reward skills. Industry will also need to offer its human resources to vocational secondary schools, industrial training institutes and private vocational training providers, so that the number of instructors with practical experience increases by a very large number.

Further Reading

Mehrotra, S. (Ed) (2014) India’s Skills Challenge: Reforming Vocational Education and Training to Harness the Demographic Dividend. Oxford University Press.

King, K. (2012) The Geopolitics and Meanings of India’s Massive Skills Development Ambitions. International Journal of Educational Development 32: 665–673. [Read summary of it in NORRAG News here]

>>Other NORRAG NEWSBite blogs on Technical and Vocational Education and Training


Santosh Mehrotra is Professor of Economics, Centre for Labour and Informal Sector Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Previously, he was Director-General at the National Institute of Labour Economics Research and Development (NILERD, earlier called Institute of Applied Manpower Research), Planning Commission of India. Email:

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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Strengthening International Co-operation in Education

By Colin Power, University of Queensland.

The Power of EducationThere can be no question as to the public and private benefits of education.  But education is empowering only if it is of quality and leads to learning, that is, to the continuous development of one’s knowledge, expertise, talents and values, and to the wise and ethical use of that knowledge and expertise. Quality education for all empowers communities and nations, but only if it is equally accessible to all, and certainly not if what is provided to the masses is restricted and/or of poor quality.

NORRAG members certainly are aware that over the past twenty-five years, the Education for All (EFA) alliance has played an important role in promoting, supporting and monitoring EFA. The progress made, the challenges remaining and priority areas to be addressed in seeking to achieve internationally agreed education and development goals have been set out in the EFA and Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Monitoring Reports published by UNESCO, UNDP and commented on by Power (2015).  Until recently, meeting the basic education needs of children, youth and women remained high on the policy agenda of the international development community and many countries, and slow but steady progress was made towards the goals of EFA. For example, the number of out-of-school children has fallen from over 100 million in 1990 to 57 million today, the number of adult illiterates from over 900 million to 774 million. Nonetheless, much remains to be done: education and overseas development budgets suffered in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and since 2008 the progress being made towards achieving the goals of EFA has stagnated. Education, equity and human rights are not central to the agendas of all the world’s most powerful nations and organisations.

In the mid-1990s, UNESCO’s International Commission on Education for the 21st Century (the Delors Report) reminded us that our future well-being rests on the extent to which we continue to learn throughout life.  It called for a strengthening of international co-operation in education and the sharing knowledge and experience needed to build a learning society. Ensuring all have access to the quality education and training they need throughout life is a necessary condition for peace, democracy, sustainable development. Providing the type of quality education and training needed to empower individuals and communities plays a key role in support of efforts to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; to assure gender equity, the protection of the world’s rich cultural and natural heritage; to address the challenges posed by globalisation, advances in communication technology, global warming, climate change, extremism and terrorism. In our shrinking global village, our education systems and institutions have a key role in educating for citizenship at both the national and global level.  As UNESCO’s Director-General (Bokova) argued in 2013:

Global citizenship cannot just be an ideal – it must be a practice that is taken forward by each of us every day. It is about human rights and dignity, it is about the responsibilities we have towards others and the planet, and it is a sense of global belonging and solidarity. (The Global Consultation on Education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda, Senegal, 2013)

Throughout human history, peace and sustainable development have been about assuring a shared destiny, about the common good, about basic rights and freedoms, about justice and equity. We need to learn to live together in harmony with each other and nature, or perish.  In essence, the world needs a fairer, more humane, inclusive, ethical and intelligent approach to education and development. The world needs a revitalised, stronger and empowered UNESCO and UN system, not a weaker one.  It needs an inclusive international education and development community, one in which governments, non-government organizations, institutes and leading educators work together to ensure our education and training systems are inclusive and empowering, and build our collective capacity to lay the foundations for  peace, democracy and sustainable development.


Power, C.N. (2015) The Power of Education:  Education for All, Development, Globalisation and UNESCO.  Singapore, London: Springer.

Colin Power is the Chair of the Commonwealth Consortium for Education, Adjunct Professor, the University of Queensland, and former Deputy Director-General, UNESCO (1989-2000). Email:


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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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The Biggest NGO in Government

By David Levesque.  Independent Education Consultant.

illusionSo said the British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his autobiography, of Clare Short’s Department for International Development in the early 2000s.   Whether irony or whimsical musing, it reflected a shift in the balance of how UK government aid had previously been perceived and challenged the zeitgeist on where the balance lay between national self-interest and global humanitarian compassion.

Leaving aside possible assumptions about the nature and role of NGOs, it is interesting to highlight some of the actions and policies that might have supported this conclusion.

Underpinning the changes was the decision to create a separate government department, with cabinet status, independent of the Foreign Office.  This enabled programmes to be developed outside of British foreign policy priorities. The subsequent 2002 International Development Act enshrined poverty reduction as the focus of British development assistance.

The consequences included untying aid delivery so that it was no longer linked to British goods and services, refusing to badge UK aid so that it was seen as a global rather than a national good, giving priority to poverty reduction through every programme and project and refusing requests from other government departments for the use of aid money.  It undoubtedly helped that both the then UK Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer were supportive of development assistance, epitomised by the strong support given to the ‘make poverty history’ campaign at the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit.

The balance began to change progressively throughout the first decade of the 21st century as Britain became involved in conflicts.  First in Sierra Leone and later in Iraqi and Afghanistan, development became part of the response to rebuilding societies. This required greater collaboration across government departments leading to the formation of a ‘3D’ partnership between development, diplomacy and defence.

The change of government in the UK in 2010 led to further modification.  An increasing aid budget and a branding of UKaid, led to calls for stronger accountability.  More money was allocated to justifying the aid budget, requiring a focus on value for money, attribution, target setting, measurement, research evidence for business plans, results based allocations and the establishment of an independent watchdog. A strengthening focus on conflict prevention required further cross government collaboration and a focus on good government as a prerequisite for poverty reduction.

If we look globally across the world of official government development assistance in 2015 it is possible to see many of the same issues.  The prevailing paradigm is towards the national self-interest end of the spectrum with the promotion of branded, tied aid, an emphasis on promoting national culture and language through partnership and scholarships and the need to finance national accountability concerns.

Some governments claim that these different perspectives are not antithetical.  It is in the national self-interest to give humanitarian assistance across the globe as this encourages peace and security.

Priorities change over time as different governments come and go but aid finance is a precious, scarce resource that deserves to be used with maximum effect for the world’s poorest people. Finding the appropriate balance between support for humanitarian objectives and national self-interest requires on-going vigilance.

The Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore provided an appropriate metaphorical caution, ‘I’ve spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument, while the song I came to sing remains unsung.’

Perhaps there is sometimes a case for government development departments looking more like NGOs.


Blair, T. 2010. A Journey.  London: Random House.


David Levesque is an independent education consultant who previously worked for DFID as a senior education adviser. Email:

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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International Benchmarking and Measuring the Quality of Learning


TapeCurrent post-2015 proposals for universal goals, targets and indicators, and the mushrooming of global initiatives, meetings and reports, suggest a shift of focus away from developing country contexts and towards a global framework of development. One of the key elements of this framework seems to be a strong push for internationally comparable data on learning outcomes, notably through a “data revolution” called for by the UN High Level Panel in 2013.

Between 8-13 March 2015, the 59th Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) is due to take place in Washington, DC. NORRAG, along with AIREducation International, GLOBED Master Consortium and the Open Society Foundations, is planning three panels at the 2015 CIES Conference. In the spirit of Ubuntu as described for the theme of CIES, NORRAG is looking at pluralistic approaches to benchmarking and measuring learning, which envision education as a cornerstone for the development of the whole individual who would become an active and thoughtful citizen in both social and economic spheres.

Big data, big questions

The collection of massive amounts of data on systems and participants in education, for example, could benefit by being examined in the light of potential unintended consequences, national and local needs, corporate vested interests and a more holistic approach to education only partially captured through standardized testing metrics. Moreover, funding is not unlimited, and international calls for comparable data on learning will likely strengthen global and regional institutions in contrast to national or local ones.

The first panel, on ‘Big data, big questions’, will explore questions concerning the political economy of big data collection efforts and administration of standardized tests designed to evaluate and rank student and teacher performance. There is a need to interrogate key assumptions about the need for, and characteristics of, large-scale data collection and testing. Who defines quality, and how? Is comparability truly possible and when is it necessary? Once needs have been defined, how can projects and interventions be taken to an appropriate scale? Who are and who should be the actors in deciding the what, how and why of measurement? Who are the custodians and purveyors of the results? Who has access and who should have access? What obligations do private sector actors have with respect to the collection, storage, ownership and use of tools and results, and with what controls? How will it be possible to determine whether principles of social justice and quality are being followed or compromised? And, finally, what mechanisms and conditions need to be established to make sure decisions and implementation are both fair and open to those who will be most affected by the use of data?

The presentations will include:

Alternative and complementary methodologies

The second panel, on ‘Alternative and complementary methodologies’, will look at initiatives that focus on quality, citizen participation (including education personnel), examples of broad measures of quality, and evaluating the evaluators. The panel will be organized around three complementary perspectives to current approaches to the post-2015 “data revolution”:

  1. A focus on longitudinal studies and effects: many desirable outcomes of education are medium and long-term e.g., as productive workers, active citizens, discerning consumers, problem solvers, and family formers. Most benchmarking of “learning outcomes” is necessarily a snapshot at a particular time point, which thus provides limited evidence about longer-term impacts of education. It is entirely possible that existing data can be better utilized to tease out longer-term impacts of learning on individuals, families, communities and countries to support more longitudinal approaches to data collection and analysis.
  2. Impact assessment: there is an urgent need to understand the impact of assessment practices. How do we develop, test and promote ways to more closely scrutinize reforms in learning assessment and related processes, notably in light of both expected desirable and unintended consequences?
  3. Capacity building and empowerment for national and local data gathering: What kinds of assessment practices and information are more likely to result in real change in schools and classrooms? What should be the roles of teachers, citizens, school leaders, academics, and assessment specialists in improving and conducting learning assessments? How can different actors be empowered to increase their voice and participation in existing assessment techniques?

The presentations under this panel will include:

Addressing urban violence though education

The recognition that urban violence is a considerable threat to the stability and development of states and the wellbeing of their citizens has led national and international researchers to examine the role and effectiveness of violence prevention and reduction programs or citizen security programs in urban settings. Consequently, there has been a number of mapping exercises and analyses involving these initiatives. Recent examination of such initiatives (especially in Latin America) has shown a shift from ‘heavy-handed’ approaches (which emphasize the use of police force for dealing with violence), towards ‘softer handed’ civil society methods (which aim to create order through prevention or addressing conflict drivers). Often, education and training is at the heart of these methods.

Given the changing nature of conflict and violence globally – one that sees both armed conflict and so-called non-conflict increasingly taking place in urban settings – the third panel, on ‘Addressing urban violence though education’, will explore a simple question: what formal and nonformal education strategies are being implemented to address urban violence?

Brazil and South Africa are two examples of countries which have shown high levels of socio-economic development, but also inequality and interpersonal and public violence. Both countries have addressed violence, but have approached it from different contextual perspectives. In Brazil, armed violence prevention and reduction programs and citizen security programs seek to address conflict in urban settings. In South Africa, civil society has taken the lead on violence prevention and reduction, less through a security lens, and more through a socio-economic/poverty reduction lens. In both cases, initiatives that focus on formal and nonformal education (broadly conceived) can offer insights into good practices and lessons learned. Indeed, the case studies of Brazil and South Africa illustrate the relationship between conflict, violence, and education programming opportunities.

The presentations under this panel will include:

>> Read existing NORRAG NewsBite Blogs on Data and Learning Outcomes

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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