By Lauren Marston, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

REAL Centre and other Faculty of Education attendees

In mid-April 2019, members of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge, including me, attended the Comparative & International Education Society (CIES) conference held in San Francisco, California. The conference was held at the Hyatt Regency in downtown, the centrepiece of which matched its high calibre. 

From left to right: Lauren Marston, Seema Nath and Rebecca Gordon in front of the magnificent lobby centrepiece

Consistent with this year’s theme, ‘Education for Sustainability’, REAL Centre members gathered together with thousands of others in order to consider the potential for education to act as a driver of economic growth through rich presentations, round-table discussions, posters and tabling sessions.

REAL Centre Director Professor Pauline Rose engaged in conversations around the impact of the abolition of secondary school fees in Malawi, financing with equity in regards to secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa, and equitable learning outcomes in Ethiopia. Additionally, she engaged in a plenary session to discuss the contributions from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics and the Global Monitoring Report (GMR).  

Pauline Rose participating in a plenary session, which was also attended by the Doctoral candidates

A panel organised by the Impact Initiative explored the challenges faced by both researchers and policy makers in promoting evidence-based policy and practice. A panel associated with the ESRC-DFID Raising Learning Outcomes Programme considered the types of impact that can realistically be expected within the short time frame of a research project-cycle, as well as the support needed to ensure it can be sustained in the longer term. Together, the panels provided some key suggestions of how an iterative and collaborative research approach involving a wide range of stakeholders from government, private sector, civil society and non-governmental organisations can be effective in influencing policy change. Additionally, Dr. Padmini Iyer discussed the ethnic minority experiences of upper secondary education in Lao Cai, Vietnam, focusing on effectiveness and equity.

Doctoral candidates from the REAL Centre also participated in the conference and presented their own research on varied topics related to education around the world. Rebecca Gordon discussed how member-focused (and predominantly women-led) microfinance has had a positive impact on women’s and girls’ education through mothers’ increased information and knowledge, newfound role models, aspirational changes and enhanced abilities to access flexible loans. Similarly focused on girls’ education, Aliya Khalid considered how mothers in Pakistan may play an important role in improving access for their daughters’ education. Importantly, she shared findings which show that mothers create their own unique pathways through a careful combination of silences and voice – remaining silent to deal with risky times and raising their voice strategically when the time is right.

In light of Ethiopia’s process of rapid and extensive policy reform in pre-primary education, Janice Kim shared her findings of a positive relationship between pre-school attendance and later student achievement, which emerged only after the reform. She warned, however, that although the reform has strengthened the role of pre-school, there is some indication that it can exacerbate learning inequality between children from advantaged versus disadvantaged backgrounds. Also focused on policy, I shared my dissertation work which explores the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program in Jamaica. My findings suggest the need to attend to the numerous benefits of education, beyond those solely linked to human capital accumulation. Furthermore, I recommended that such programs also consider the interactions among the benefits, and consequently, the potential for them, working together, to also improve the quality of recipients’ lives, beyond the traditionally envisaged enhanced economic gains.

Lauren Marston during her paper presentation
Stephen Bayley during his round-table session

Stephen Bayley shared preliminary findings from his research in Rwanda which show that children’s cognitive flexibility (a basis for their creativity and problem solving) appears to be improving during primary schooling, indicating that drawing on child psychology may provide guidance for international education to improve learners’ skills. Moreover, he advised that assessments of children’s executive functions in low-income contexts requires careful consideration of different cultural conceptualisations, the assessments used and the methodologies employed to ensure that they are suitably adapted for the context. 

Last, but not least, Seema Nath discussed her research which investigates what works regarding inclusivity in Indian schools, and children’s opinion of their social environment and inclusion in school. Her unique approach included the perspectives of both teachers and students to understand teaching and learning in mainstream schools that include all learners (with and without disabilities).

Seema Nath during her paper presentation

Overall, opportunities to demonstrate, learn and critically consider what is working in education and what more needs to be done towards the goal of sustainability, were abundant, as were opportunities for networking and engagement in thought-provoking and entertaining conversations:

Attending the CIES conference in San Francisco offered an unparalleled opportunity to learn from and engage with researchers and practitioners from across the globe. In particular, I’ve discovered a growing community of professionals working on similar issues to me and I’m excited to see how these new connections will develop.

– Stephen Bayley

Perhaps one of the best parts about CIES 2019 was the support that REAL Centre member attendees showed to one another. It was not unusual to see at least one in the crowd during each of their presentations, demonstrating the nature of the strong support amongst members:

I was very nervous and anxious right before my presentation. However, seeing the familiar faces of my colleagues smiling and nodding encouragingly in the audience gave me the confidence to present my research and speak with conviction.

-Seema Nath

When not presenting or attending sessions, REAL Centre attendees also used the opportunity to simply enjoy being outside in the sunshine and to also explore the beautiful Embarcadero area, one of the liveliest and most scenic areas in San Francisco.

REAL Centre Doctoral candidates enjoying additional conference activities

Overall, REAL Centre attendees relished the chance to discuss their research in a safe, supportive and collaborative environment at CIES 2019. The conference extended them the opportunity to receive constructive feedback to make their research stronger, learn about the work of others around the world and perhaps most importantly, to network and begin to cultivate relationships, important especially for the Doctoral candidates as emerging professionals.  

The REAL Centre would like to officially thank CIES 2019 for the chance to participate, and hopes to have a similarly wonderful experience at CIES 2020 Miami!

Lauren Marston was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. She started her career as a School Psychologist and worked in various public schools, including those dedicated to working with students who had severe socio-emotional and behavioural difficulties, through a non-profit organisation in Boston, Massachusetts. Later, Lauren worked for a charter school network, also in Boston, where she focused more on special education. Following that, she pursued studies in International Education Policy, and in so doing, made the decision to consequently pursue a PhD. Currently, Lauren is a third year doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, Clare Hall. Driven by a passion for the realisation of a world in which every child, everywhere, has the resources to thrive and to access a high-quality education, her doctoral studies centre on exploring the influence of financial incentives on recipients, their education and their lives.  

Posted by:fersacambridge

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