Implications of the new ‘Smart Buys’ report

Last week, the FCDO–World Bank released the ‘Smart Buys’ report. To us (Godwin and Julia), as two educational development practitioners with decades of experience behind us, the report is preaching to the choir. It outlines the results of an analysis by a panel of global education experts into the evidence for the most cost-effective ways of improving learning in low- and middle-income countries. The report confirms our views and experience from Ghana and elsewhere.

This is a timely report because, if cost-effectiveness was crucial before COVID-19, it is obviously even more crucial now. At Foundation First, we welcome the report for three main reasons: 

  1. It endorses cost-effective educational interventions in early childhood education and pre-primary education in Ghana, especially as these are our raison d’etre; 
  2. It encourages us to continue following evidence-based approaches in our work; and 
  3. It gives us confidence due to the distinguished panel that created it.

What are the key conclusions of the report? And where does Foundation First fit in?

In the report, the panel has grouped educational interventions and categories of interventions into four tiers to reflect how cost-effective each of them is at improving learning and how strong the evidence for this is. The top-tier ‘great buys’ are highly cost-effective interventions, one of which matches our practice of providing information to parents on the benefits of quality early childhood and pre-primary education.

The second-tier ‘good buys’ are interventions for which there is good evidence of cost-effectiveness. Notably, just providing support to pre-primary education is considered a ‘good buy’, strongly suggesting that it should be a priority area for investment for governments and donors. Of course, this relies on organisations like Foundation First supporting preschools to make sure that children’s classroom experience enhances the stimulation and social-emotional support that the lucky ones amongst them are already experiencing in their homes and that the children attend school regularly. We know from experience that adding a basic level of support for pre-primary education can be transformational for kindergarten teachers, school leaders and government officials.

The third-tier ‘promising’ buys are interventions where evidence of their cost-effectiveness is for the most part, as yet, limited. This tier includes interventions in early childhood development i.e. the equivalent of nursery education, which is our focus, along with kindergarten education.

How does Foundation First stack up?

We are pleased to report that, while our interventions are well represented in the higher tiers in the ways that we have outlined above, none of them is represented amongst the lowest-tier ‘bad buys’. Interventions recorded as ‘bad buys’ are those for which there is strong, repeated evidence that they either have not worked or are not cost-effective. They involve initiatives such as providing generic, untargeted in-service teacher training that is divorced from the precise context in which the beneficiaries of the training are working. This would be anathema to us!

Bad buys also include initiatives such as providing items, e.g. textbooks and computer hardware, without providing accompanying measures to ensure that the intended beneficiaries of these items are enabled to use them. This would also be anathema to us!

What does this mean for us?

A major goal for us going forward is to work more closely with Ghana’s Social Welfare Department, Ghana Education Service and other partners to vigorously pursue the smartest-buy interventions in order to overcome the learning crisis in early childhood and pre-primary education in Ghana. As a trusted partner that is already practising much of what is preached in the ‘Smart Buys’ report, we hope to precipitate a wider change across the sector.

Another goal that the report spurs us on to pursue even more vigorously is our engagement with countrywide discussions around which initiatives it would be preferable to prioritise at the early childhood and preschool levels. We’re also keen to gain more and better evidence about the relative effectiveness of these initiatives in a variety of contexts in order to better deliver on future national calls for concerted action.

What do you think about the conclusions of the report and the so-called ‘smart buys’? Are you, like us, sold on the idea? Or do you have a different framework you’d recommend? Leave a comment below to join the conversation.

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