From rhetoric to reality – can aid-funded projects really influence government systems to be more inclusive?

04 November 2019 by Sally Rosscornes, GEC Monitoring and Learning Lead and Alison Pollard, GEC Evaluation and Evidence Lead (FCDO)

Whilst there has been major progress towards mass inclusion in education, many marginalised young people including those with disabilities, from indigenous communities and living in fragile states, continue to be left behind. Despite global agreement about the need for genuinely inclusive education systems that support and empower disadvantaged young people, Sustainable Development Goal 4 remains a mirage on the education horizon.

Entrenched structural and cultural barriers limit marginalised young people’s ability to participate and thrive in national education systems and natural as well as man-made disasters compound them. Education systems are often, by design, unwelcoming to young people who experience high levels and multiple forms of disadvantage.  

But should we spare a thought for the Ministries of Education we are targeting for change? Surrounded by voices trying to influence them (from ministerial colleagues, civil society organisations and the international education community), who should they listen to? How can they interact with and learn from different groups trying to influence them? Whose agenda on inclusion is uppermost?

The Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) is funded by UK Aid and is the world’s largest global fund dedicated to girls’ education, supporting up to 1.5 million marginalised girls with access to education and learning across 17 countries. 27 projects supported through the Girls' Education Challenge Transition (GEC-T) window are building valuable case study evidence and reflections about influencing the development of more inclusive national education systems as part of their sustainability strategies.

GEC project implementers tend to start at grassroots level, working in a select number of communities to understand their context before testing and demonstrating the effectiveness of specific approaches to improve access and learning for girls. They use evidence of successful project work to move outwards and upwards, engaging strategically important actors within government ministries, rather than using high-level vision and policy objectives as their starting point. This approach draws upon the principles of ‘backward mapping’ (Elmore, 1979)* and is integral to the GEC model of working with stakeholders to create lasting change. It is inclusive and empowering for stakeholders because it is grounded in analysis of local context, grassroots experience and the voices of teachers and local communities. 

And it is leading to sustainable changes within education systems.

During the early stages of the GEC, we saw how a small project can have large scale impact when combined with others in response to an identified government priority (read more here: Lessons in Sustainability from the GEC). And now, a few years on, we are seeing projects contributing to change in the system to improve prospects for disadvantaged young people.

Where there is no secondary school

A number of studies have shown that interventions which reduce the distance from home to school are effective in increasing access to education for young people who live in remote rural locations. However, it is not always possible to build new schools in remote locations, and, even when it is, it is difficult to recruit qualified teachers to work in them. Distance learning programmes can play a crucial role in supporting young people who are marginalised as a result of their location to access education. Recognising this, the government of Mozambique is delivering secondary education via distance learning, using learning assimilated from neighbouring countries and adapting the approach to the Mozambique context. Save the Children’s GEC project discussed with government how they could build on this with an initiative to use primary school locations to roll-out the distance learning programme to many more students, enhancing the approach with the addition of mentors and life skills materials. Working with local primary school teachers to support older students as they learn and adapting existing government school materials to the needs of marginalised girls, the project is enabling the government to open up access to more and more girls.

Co-creation of resources 

In Uganda there is a clear policy of inclusion for children with disabilities but until recently little practical support for teachers and schools wanting to enact it – so inclusion is constrained by low capacity. Aware of this through discussions with the FCDO, government representatives and others, the Viva-CRANE network collaborated with the relevant ministries to refine a tool and resource guide for identifying learners with additional needs. This tool and resource guide has now been accepted for use across the country. Subsequently, further co-authoring has resulted in a resource guide to support users of the tool. The draft of this guide was shared at a Monitoring and Evaluation meeting at the Ministry of Education and Sports in February 2019 which recommended the tool and guide be shared with five teacher training colleges before rollout across the country. Feedback from the trainings reflects a significant need to support teacher educators of in-service and preservice teachers with knowledge about learning needs and strategies for how to include all learners in the learning process. The rollout of this jointly created resource is ongoing. 

Organisations which successfully influence education systems understand how to navigate the politics of these systems and to discern which are the acceptable and necessary trade-offs. GEC projects have a range of experience and lessons learned from working within politicised environments to advocate for and influence change. The FCDO’s Regional GEC Education Advisors play a key role in linking projects with the relevant government departments.

Burnett’s (2019)** recent paper about the international architecture for education aid shows that although projects are connected to a wider arena of interest, they work in a specific sphere of activity in which they have a certain but limited degree of control. The Teacher Professional Development at Scale coalition have similarly discussed spheres of control, influence and interest. Adapting this to the large-scale development programme model, we consider how these spheres interact. At the centre is a Ministry of Education, embedded in the global backdrop conversation about urgent priorities and statistics, in daily contact with other ministries and colleagues each with their own set of priorities and competing for budget, and pulled sideways by NGOs and others demonstrating how to include all children and not leave anyone behind. 

Sometimes governments have introduced inclusive policies but they are not enacted because communities are resistant to the inclusion of certain groups of children, for example girls of a particular religion or children with disabilities. In these situations, projects can support government policy by influencing community attitudes, championing the rights of all children to a quality education and reducing stigma attached to particular groups.

As we move through the GEC-T midline analysis and into the next stages of implementation we will be asking more questions about the extent to which the systems and contexts projects are working in are conducive to an inclusive approach and how projects decide what to focus on when seeking to influence change. 

We will ask whether there have there been trade-offs, for example where a government wants to become more inclusive but has to be pragmatic. What kinds of evidence do ministries need in order to be reassured that the changes will have impact and the money will be well spent? And how can the strengths of projects, funders and governments be harnessed to bring about lasting change?


* Richard Elmore, “Backward Mapping: Implementation Research and Policy Decisions”, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. gk, no. k (Winter 1979–80 ), 601–616.

** Burnett, N. It’s past time to fix the broken international architecture for education, International Journal of Educational Development, 2019, vol. 68, issue C, 15-19