Giving Compass' Take:

• Caroline Fiennes explores the difficulties of assessing cost-effectiveness when it comes to education funding, suggesting that level-appropriate teaching and professional training show promise.

• The main takeaway is there's still much to learn about impact in this field. Philanthropists who want to engage in education funding should be open to new ideas and adhere to rigorously-gathered data.

• Read about deficiencies in our current education funding scheme

Rigorous evidence about both primary and secondary education is rather sparse, though primary education is better studied. Very few programs have been tested often enough, and in enough places, to give confidence about their effectiveness.

It is clear that there are two quite distinct challenges, however. The first is getting children to attend school (“participation”). The second is ensuring that they learn while there. Without the latter, schools are just holding pens for parents who are out working during the day. I’ve certainly visited schools like that.

On participation, many studies suggest that families weigh the costs of children attending school against the benefits. On the cost side, there might be cash costs (buying uniforms, for example); opportunity costs (children could otherwise be earning money), or time costs if the school is far away.

Giving money to families can therefore be effective, for instance via scholarship programs or “cash transfers”, often made on condition that the child fulfills a certain level of attendance. Where they are unconditional they might be targeted at particular demographic groups: the UK’s welfare benefits are a form of cash transfer, for example. In Kenya, providing a free school uniform (costing less than $8) reduced dropout rates among girls from 19 percent to 16 percent.

Learning is a different challenge. One program that consistently improves learning outcomes is “structured pedagogy”, such as providing lesson plans, regular monitoring and mentoring of teachers, and teaching problem-solving skills. The latter shifts the teaching away from rote learning and the traditional “sage on stage” approach.

Another successful approach is “teaching at the right level”, because many children may simply get left behind. And a third promising approach is individualized, repeated teacher training, focused on a specific task or tool.

Read the full article about what impactful education funding by Caroline Fiennes at Giving Evidence.