Sometimes the most memorable takeaway from a conference or summit isn’t a presentation, but an unexpected comment that resonates long after closing remarks. I recently returned from attending the Ghana Education Evidence Summit (GEES), which was held in Accra in late March and organized by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and Ghana’s Ministry of Education. While there were many important presentations highlighting significant, rigorous research done by experts in the field, the moment that stuck out to me more than any of the findings presented was a comment by Ghana’s Deputy Minister of Education, Hon. Dr. Yaw Osei Adutwum. Dr. Adutwum’s remarks came during a lively discussion of the status, merits, and shortcomings of low-fee private schools – one of the most contentious topics in global education.
Dr. Adutwum remarked that he had established one of these low-fee schools in his home village in an attempt to provide the children there with a higher-quality education. He stated that he made kindergarten and the first year of primary school free, in order to increase access. Although the school is fee-charging, it is not profitable, and requires Dr. Adutwum’s ongoing support.
This example of a private school is somewhat at odds with the common perception in Ghana and in the development community at large that private schools are profit-driven – and frequently exploitative – businesses. While there are undoubtedly schools that fit this characterization, recent research has cast this stereotype into doubt and indicates that the school that Dr. Adutwum operates may be less the exception than the rule. This tension is exactly why better integrating rigorous research into policy debates is such an urgent priority.
Research conducted by Results for Development, and presented at the GEES conference, indicates that proprietors of many of these home-grown private schools instituted their schools based on social rather than economic motivations – they were established to provide a higher-quality education than was available in their communities. Additionally, this research found that only about a third of low-fee private schools are profitable, while the rest provide education at a loss, only break even, or do not know their financial status. Work presented by Oni Lusk-Stover of the World Bank further confirmed the state of these schools – a survey of private schools in Kasoa, Ghana found that only about 20 percent were profitable.
Roughly a quarter of children in Ghana receive their education through private providers, 40 percent of which are considered low-fee private schools. And although this education is being provided outside of the government’s system, government policy can still have a significant impact on the quality, sustainability, affordability, and accessibility of these schools. This does not imply that governments must support low-fee private schools. Nevertheless, such a significant and growing population must be accounted for, and whatever the nature of the relationship that governments pursue, it is imperative that these decisions be based on fact.
The Ghana Education Evidence Summit was convened with this purpose in mind – to encourage and enable policymakers to base decisions on facts rather than conjecture. Researchers, donors, members from Ghanaian civil society organizations, and policymakers gathered together to present rigorous research, discuss ways in which evidence could better be integrated into the policymaking process, and to spark connections between participating groups.
The culmination of this conference was a discussion of several systemic changes that would need to be in place for research to be a central component of the policymaking process. Several key recommendations were presented:
- Increase funding for the dissemination of research: Research doesn’t do anyone any good if it stays on the shelf, but dissemination can be expensive. Research organizations, donors, and governments need to allocate funds specifically to make sure research reaches the appropriate audiences.
- Support tinkering and testing on the road to scale: Major policy initiatives should be iterative in order to promote learning, optimize effectiveness, and make necessary improvements before they reach full scale. This would also mean including evaluation methods such as randomized controlled trials or adaptive learning throughout the design and implementation of policies.
- Institutionalize the creation of evidence: While quality data collection is not cheap, it is a necessary component of education systems, and necessarily extends beyond gathering math and reading scores. Rigorous monitoring and evaluation enables research and can lead to cost savings and improved programs over the long run.
- Research needs a seat at the table: Policy formulation is incomplete if it does not receive input from education experts and academics dedicated to research both within and without the government. Academic researchers should be included in working groups, and agencies dedicated to research should be integrated into government ministries.
The GEES conference itself represented the application of many of these principles. Government ministers and other policymakers were brought together with researchers and donors and held open dialogues about the policy implications of research findings. Significantly, this dialogue did not end with the conference’s cocktail hour. Small working groups were organized to discuss ways in which stakeholders can continue working to improve Ghana’s education system. Members of these working groups include government ministers, civil society organizations, private school associations, multilateral development organizations, non-profits, and researchers. These working groups will serve as platforms for the presentation and discussion of research, including that which was conducted by R4D.
It’s a well-documented fact that policymakers – whether in Ghana, the United States, or elsewhere – do not always make decisions in accordance with the rigorous evidence placed at their disposal. However, ensuring policymakers continuously have access to data and research is a prerequisite to informed policymaking. The processes I observed at the Ghana Education Evidence Summit gave me hope that valuable research will indeed reach the right audiences. The interest and commitment by government ministers and bureaucrats in attendance give me reason to believe that the research will be applied for the strengthening of Ghana’s education sector.
Robert Francis is a program associate working on education, for which he supports a number of projects including an evaluation of the IDP Rising Schools Program in Ghana and a collaboration with Pearson PLC to explore means of improving youth employability. Prior to joining R4D, Robert worked for AidData, where he conducted a field study to determine factors that motivate transparent behavior in Indian NGOs.
Photo Credits: USAID, Ghana ; R4D.