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RISE: Improving education systems in low-income countries

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Mark Henstridge

Alexandra Bridges Denitsa Vidolova Ifeatu Nnodu Jenny Congrave Karin Seyfert Mark Henstridge Nicola Ruddle Ying Yeung Zara Majeed

While rates of primary school enrolment have risen dramatically over the last few decades, this has not translated into improved learning outcomes at scale. The ‘Research on Improving Systems of Education’ (RISE) programme helps address this and better understand the factors that block or support improved learning. We are working closely with the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, to manage and implement the programme. Our team will lead the establishment of research teams and oversee project work in up to five countries over six years. We are adopting a consultative approach, engaging with a range of stakeholders to better understand the policy environments and education systems in the potential research countries. By building relationships with national decision-makers we will help ensure the policy value of results, providing insights into what works and what doesn’t and ultimately, supporting improved education systems on an international scale.

RISE is supported by GBP 29.4 million in funding from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), which has dedicated GBP 22.4 million for research in up to five countries, and GBP 7 million to support expert advice and management; and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), whose commitment of AUD 9.85 million has allowed RISE to incorporate a sixth country.


Primary school enrolment has soared in recent decades: In 1950, an adult in a low-income country received just two years of schooling on average – this increased to over seven years by 2010. However, learning outcomes have not improved at anywhere near the same rate. Indeed, there’s an international body of evidence suggesting that even after a number of years of schooling, children have not grasped the most basic skills of literacy and numeracy.

There is an urgent need to gain insights into the barriers to effective learning, to help inform policy decision-making around interventions that will help accelerate and improve learning outcomes. We know from previous research that keeping children in school for longer and spending more on inputs such as textbooks and teacher training will not be enough.

Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) – with £21 million for country research supported by DFID – has been established to address these knowledge gaps, and understand the challenges and opportunities around improving levels of learning in a range of contexts. By looking at education systems in a range of countries, we have a unique opportunity to explore their workings and consider why reform programmes succeed or fail - and what the impact is on learning

Our approach

We are working in partnership with the Blavatnik School of Government and the Center for Global Development to develop a multi-year, multi-country research programme, combining leading academic knowledge with practical experience to build a policy-relevant evidence base on what makes education systems effective.

The initial stage of the project will involve conducting scoping and feasibility exercises in the potential research countries. We are carrying out country engagement to understand the nuances of policy decision making and implementation in the shortlisted countries. This will inform the feasibility of research in potential countries, and how to maximise impact once the research starts producing findings.

In this phase we will also establish the procurement processes and management systems to ensure we get high quality research proposals which produce leading, influential results.

Specific services being provided by our combined team include:

  • Development and implementation of a country engagement strategy. In inception this includes a stakeholder mapping in around eight potential research countries. This will help understand what the interests of stakeholders are and what influence they have over policy reform. The strategy will also ensure policymakers are engaged with the programme and the research findings have maximum impact.
  • Engaging the supplier market, in particular through holding a two day research conference in Washington D.C. in mid-June 2015. We will also support regional supplier workshops in Asia and Africa in July and August 2015. These will provide an opportunity for academics and researchers to network ahead of the call for proposals.
  • Development of the procurement process which will include a call for proposals to eventually contract five country research teams.
  • Setting up management and reporting frameworks for the country research teams.
  • Establishing partnerships with other funders in order to crowd in funding or in-kind support to expand the programme.


This research programme will help provide valuable insights for policy makers in low-income countries. By addressing key research questions, such as ‘what makes a system and what makes it function effectively’, our work will help build a bank of evidence to underpin effective education decision-making that ultimately supports improved learning outcomes.

More broadly, the programme will help build a new systems-wide discourse in education research, fostering new approaches and methodologies that can be applied in a range of contexts, helping build a robust global evidence base.

Photo credit: Lina Rozana