Partnerships for impact

Nicola Pitchford introduces perspectives from those at the ‘coal face’ of education.

I started working at the intersection of education, academia and international aid in 2013, having a background in developmental neuropsychology. At the time, my research centred on understanding how children acquire basic foundational skills, especially in response to adverse neurological events such as stroke or tumour. Through working with external partners, I have now broadened my focus to applying scientific knowledge to enhance learning outcomes for marginalised children worldwide.

A random pathway of events led me to two of the most inspirational leaders I have ever known: Dario Gentili – Head of Business Development for Southern Africa & Sierra Leone for the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), a large international NGO; and Marc Faulder – Apple Distinguished Educator and Early Years Specialist in Nottingham. Our work is focused on using educational technology to support the acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy skills in children that, for various reasons, are struggling to learn. It connects learning challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa to those in the UK by implementing a common educational app-based technology developed by the UK non-profit ‘onebillion’, joint winners of the Global Learning XPRIZE. In doing so, we are able to identify factors that impact all learners and contextually-specific influences. This informs the implementation process.

Working with Dario and Marc in vastly different contexts has been enlightening. They bring tremendous insight into the research design and process from their wealth of knowledge through working on the ground. This adds to the quality of the research and provides a direct pathway to apply the research findings to people that matter. I feel valued for my expertise and can see, first hand, the benefits that research can bring to children and educators.

This couldn’t have come at a more critical stage in my career. After 20 years of working in a sector that had become unrecognisable from when I joined, the marketisation of academia had left me demoralised and dejected. As a sector, we must never underestimate the importance of feeling valued and appreciated. Through working with Dario and Marc I regained a sense of purpose that encouraged me to continue my academic career by focusing directly on developing opportunities for my research to have meaningful impact.

This was no ride in the park, however. I had jumped straight onto a steep learning curve, that required a flexible and fast way of working which is not aligned to the academic year. Quickly, I had to acquire a new vocabulary of terms: theory of change, logframe, and logic model became part of my repertoire, leaving many of my colleagues wondering what I was talking about. And there was big money at stake. At first, I underestimated the resources I would need to be able to conduct high-quality research at a level that will have global impact.

I was also shocked by the competitive nature of this field. On one of my first visits to Malawi I met an aid worker from the US and proudly told her what we were doing and what we were hoping to achieve. She immediately stated ‘the market is already saturated’. Naively, perhaps, I didn’t perceive improving children’s chances as a ‘market’. And after seven years of working in this field, I still don’t!

I have always preferred collaboration to competition. Global challenges, such as providing quality education for all, require genuine cooperation from multiple sectors to enable policy-makers to make informed decisions on the best available evidence. This is a difficult landscape to navigate and one that a traditional academic career does not prepare you for. But I have found the rewards substantially outweigh the difficulties. Working collaboratively with Dario and Marc towards a shared goal, and working with humility, is what makes for long-term sustainable change.

I asked my two partners to explain how this collaboration adds value to what we do.

The Implementer (Dario Gentili)
I have been working with Nicola since January 2013, with a particular focus on addressing the stubborn development issues of innumeracy and illiteracy, particularly in Sub-Saharan African countries, in an initiative called Unlocking Talent. The academic institution (the University of Nottingham) and the implementation organisation I work for (VSO International) bring different yet complementary perspectives to achieving impact.

Nicola, through the University, brings rigour to the learning and evaluation processes, providing credibility and confidence in our understanding, through structured evidence of the realities of our interventions. VSO International provides the platform for the research and works to provide sustainable long-term ‘impactful’ solutions for our clients, based on the learning through research.

The benefits of the relationship are significant and wide-ranging. Nicola’s enthusiasm and depth of knowledge in her technical field, her approaches to research and the contextual realities of the countries we work in, are invaluable and have significantly contributed to the success that we have achieved to date. Within the scope of multiple projects, we are raising the quality of foundation years education.

The Educator (Marc Faulder)
I first met Nicola in 2014 when I was looking for ways to show the impact educational technology has on learning. At this time, my school had just began implementing iPad across the curriculum and as the subject leader I was looking for ways to show that technology can play an important role in learning beyond the computing curriculum. Hearing about Nicola’s research in Malawi and the first pilot in the UK, I was keen to partner with her to add to the evidence base.

I began a partnership with Nicola that year, through Burton Joyce Primary School where I work. Following the success of the initial pilot studies in the UK of the effectiveness of the onebillion apps, we agreed to trial the software further with our Reception classes. The success of these early studies was positive and raised further questions from both the school staff and staff at the University. Together, we designed a Randomised Control Trial and recruited 12 schools from Nottinghamshire. This trial gave us all a better understanding of how the software can be used in the UK context but also helped our school continue to build our network as the Apple Regional Training Centre for Nottingham.

As the project grew with funding from the Education Endowment Foundation, our school is recognised nationally for our excellence and expertise in using educational technology. This is beneficial to our School Improvement Plan as we are in a position to develop skills of teachers across the country. The results we have seen from working with Nicola has extended within our own practice. This year all of our classes will be involved in trialling other educational software, such as guided handwriting apps and structured phonics software. We hope that implementing these apps in a similar way to the apps developed by onebillion will close the attainment gap for pupils in other areas of learning.

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