Schools as Enabling Spaces to Improve Learning and Health-Related Quality of Life for Primary School Children in Rural Communities in South Africa

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Learning and Leadership


Inequalities in education and health are deeply rooted in social and economic disadvantage. In South Africa, 38% of children live in rural communities and are significantly more likely to be deprived of opportunities for quality education and health-related quality of life than those less disadvantaged. This research aims to address this persistent structural challenge and establish how schools can beat the odds and enable children to achieve and thrive despite their location in high-poverty communities.

This project is grounded in an ethic of social justice and led by a UK and South Africa interdisciplinary team from Education, Health, Psychology, Sociology, and Health Economics. This mixed methods research will establish a comprehensive, empirically grounded theory of practice - i.e. organising schools as enabling spaces for improvement in learning and health. It will focus on the Foundation Phase of primary schooling (children aged 6-9) because: i) this is a critical period of transition from early childhood to middle childhood when early interventions can make a significant impact on long-term outcomes; and ii) this is also a key transition phase when children begin developing a sense of belonging to quality schools that can provide protective environments for those who are 'at risk' because of their dysfunctional early childhood experience.

The project will begin with a rapid evidence assessment (REA) and participatory focus group and individual interviews with purposefully selected policy officials, school and community leaders, and other stakeholders (including parents) to scope and assess the research evidence and policy reports over the last decade. The REA will identify new evidence in the key education, health and policy areas where intervention programmes have shown the potential of being most effective in enhancing children's achievement and health-related quality of life in the short, medium and long term; and the range of factors that influence these.

The results of the REA and interviews will inform the development of a systems-oriented, multi-layered intervention to strengthen the organisational and professional capacities of schools as enabling spaces for children's learning and development in socioeconomically disadvantaged rural communities. Multi-stakeholder, participatory and collaborative child (family)-school-community partnerships will be used to enhance the design and evaluation of the feasibility, applicability and sustainability of the interventions throughout the project.

A six-month pilot will be carried out in 18 rural primary schools in the province of Mpumalanga. Surveys and participatory ethnographic methods will be used with children and adults in schools and their communities to explore how variation in intervention tasks, organisational factors (especially school leadership, professional capacity of the staff, learning culture), and school and community contexts combines to create variability in outcomes (i.e. what seems to work, for whom, under what circumstance). The refined interventions will then be scaled up in an efficacy investigation in 58 rural primary schools (with 4,600+ children, 230+ teachers/school leaders) and their communities in Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo. Similar evaluation methods will be used to assess the extent of change in schools' organisational and professional capacities and how such change has impacted on children's learning and health outcomes.

By examining how schools may be(come) enabling spaces to promote whole-child quality education (SDG4), and through this, transform the health-related quality of life for children and adults (SDG3) in rural communities in South Africa, the research will make a timely contribution to understandings of how different sectors may work more effectively with schools to unlock the transformative power of education for the achievement of the other SDGs.

Planned Impact

We aim to generate new understandings about how systems-oriented actions strengthen rural primary schools as enabling spaces of learning and healthy development for pupils aged 6-9 years. Improving teachers' capacity and turning schools into quality environments for teaching and learning will be a key outcome which will have powerful positive impacts on pupils' academic and health outcomes. Additionally, the project will have positive benefits for end users in policy and practice communities in SA and many other countries where reducing inequalities in education and health remains a persistent challenge. The project's key beneficiary groups include:

1) For CHILDREN aged 6-9 years: improved foundation phase learning outcomes (indicated by change in literacy and numeracy outcomes), and objective and subjective health and wellbeing outcomes (such as growth status, BMI, QALY) - thus setting strong foundations for their future development;
2) For Foundation Phase TEACHERS: increased knowledge and capacity to participate in school processes that promote interaction between different levels in the child-school-community system and improved pedagogical practice for more effective provision of the whole-child curriculum;
3) For SCHOOL LEADERS: increased capacity and capabilities to engage stakeholder participation across the child-school-community system to bolster the learning and wellbeing environments for children in the Foundation Phase;
4) For FAMILIES AND RURAL COMMUNITIES: increased participation by families of children in school functioning and improved learning mechanisms and social connections in communities that foster families' collective knowledge and capacity to tackle the roots of social, education and health inequalities;
5) For GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS (Department of Basic Education (SA); DIFD (UK)) benefiting from systematic evidence on what effective and healthy schools and their larger communities can offer to transform children's learning, health and wellbeing over time;
6) The research methodologies and findings as well as the intervention outcomes will be of value to INTERGOVERNMENTAL AGENCIES and NGOs (OECD, UNESCO) who may use them to inform their cross-country initiatives that foster the transformative power that schools and their communities can offer to advance the sustainable development agenda internationally.

We will use the following dissemination approaches to increase beneficial impacts:
- By using the diverse policy and practitioner networks that the Advisory Committee represents: These will ensure that we have strong access to be engaged with a wide group of potential users nationally and internationally and increase potential uptake of knowledge.
- By co-constructing our intervention framework and materials with individuals across the groups identified above: This approach will ensure on-the-ground experience and local knowledge is embedded in creating the interventions and thus enable schools and their communities to provide better quality whole-child education for their pupils.
- By using our web-based Workspaces: This site will be a knowledge sharing forum where the team and participating schools will share findings and exchange updates from their interventions. This will be a key knowledge exchange avenue and a dissemination tool, allowing schools to share knowledge and practical tips on what works well and what doesn't. This forum will also be open to schools and other viewers outside the study to help them consider their own interventions.
- By hosting workshops in SA and UK: They will be specifically designed to attract interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral participants such as professionals from local and national government, NGOs, think-tanks, as well as from academia. This will enable us to share knowledge at an international level allowing attendees to learn from our project and to develop their own approach to their own regions/countries.


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Description Focus group discussion with the advisory committee of the project 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This workshop (March 2021) will invite all members of the advisory committee of the project which involves key stakeholders from the Department of Basic Education in South Africa, NGOs and school leaders. The purpose is to seek advice and spark discussion on the complex interventions that the research team has developed to improve education and health outcomes in rural primary schools in South Africa.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description IOE leads project to improve the lives of children in poverty 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The Institute of Education published this news release which attracted attention and discussions from colleagues in the UCL's Global Engagement Office and through them, a wider research and non-research community.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Presentation at the UKRI's network and impact workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This is the first meeting of the Education as a Driver of Development grants cohort organised by the UKRI. I gave a presentation on behalf of our project team which sparked some interesting discussions around methodology and impact of the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Workshop with Department for Basic Education in South Africa 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact We presented the research plans of the project to directors of different divisions in the Department for Basic Education, SA. The presentation sparked detailed discussion on strategies to improve education outcomes in rural primary schools in SA.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020