This blog was written by Dr Elena Schmidt, Director of Strategic Programme Innovations and Developments, Evidence and Research at international development organisation Sightsavers. The University of Birmingham (UoB) and Sightsavers International, funded by the ESRC-DFID Raising Learning Outcomes Programme, work collaboratively on the ‘Let’s Grow Together’ project which looks at promoting greater inclusion of children with disabilities in ECD centres in rural Malawi.
The English Dictionary defines ‘Collaboration’ as the act of working together to produce a piece of work or research. So what role does collaboration between academics and implementing agencies, such as international non-governmental organisations (iNGOs), play in the achievement of the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
This is something I’ve been talking about recently, thanks in part to the ‘Inclusive learning and teaching: lessons from the last two decades’ conference, where I was invited to speak about Sightsavers’ inclusive education work.
The conference, organised by the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge, brought together researchers, donors, policymakers and practitioners concerned with education and the ‘leave no one behind’ agenda in an attempt to answer the question: How can we achieve quality learning for ALL children, particularly those at highest risk of exclusion, children from poor households, girls and children with disabilities?
It was a great opportunity for people from different countries and professional backgrounds to share their experiences of delivering inclusive education programmes over the past two decades and to discuss what has been learnt for the future. The discussions were an interesting mix of personal stories, critical reflections and provoking thoughts.
I took part in the panel ‘Inside the classroom’, moderated by Laura Savage, Education Adviser at the UK Department for International Development. Two other panellists were Dr Nidhi Singal from the University of Cambridge and Professor Freda Wolfenden from the Open University, both well known for their research into educational inequalities. For Sightsavers, it was an opportunity to share evidence and lessons learnt from our inclusive education programmes in Senegal, Mali and Kenya.
The discussions raised some really interesting points about the quality of education in low income contexts – the role of a teacher and the impact of a wider social and cultural context on education process. It was repeatedly stressed that the teachers’ knowledge, skills and attitudes remain critical for the establishment of a positive and stimulating environment for all learners irrespective of their backgrounds or personal circumstances – but teachers cannot work alone. They need encouraging and reassuring environments within their schools, their communities and the broader education system. The role of such support systems becomes particularly important in contexts where many school children are the first generation learners, as is the case in many sub-Saharan African countries. Children in such contexts may not have adequate education support at home and may not have received stimulating development in the early years. As a result, the process of education for these children may be difficult and demanding. This needs to be recognised with realistic expectations of the children and the speed at which they learn, because success in education of these children will yield the highest rewards.
The discussions were stimulating and engaging, but what was more important about the conference was that it clearly demonstrated that complex issues such as quality of education in low-income contexts can only be tackled through collaborations that bring together academics and programme implementers. Such partnerships can be highly beneficial for both. For example, iNGOs support inclusive education interventions on the ground; they know operational challenges and are well placed to identify critical research questions relevant to their programmes. Academics, on the other hand, can help iNGOs to develop theoretical underpinning of their interventions and develop and validate tools for education assessments and measuring learning outcomes. As this operational research is often grounded within the existing programmes, it requires marginal additional costs and provides good value for money.
Collaborative research is an approach adopted by Sightsavers several years ago; and although today we have our own inhouse research team (which has recently been awarded Independent Research Organisation status), we believe in strong partnerships between academics and practitioners. In recent years we have developed a number of such partnerships, including a recent DFID/ESRC research into inclusive early childhood development, which we co-implement with the University of Birmingham in Malawi. Our experience shows that with the right collaborations, we can work towards developing and implementing effective and high-quality education programmes, meeting the targets set by the SDGs and making sure that all children can access an education and from there, a brighter future.