Can school grants buy learning? It’s debatable


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Students interacting with learning materials. Photo: Joao dos Santos / World Bank

The education group within the World Bank recently held a debate on whether school grants really do buy learning. Interestingly, we ran into some bigger questions before we even got started.

Both of our debaters, education experts David Evans and Harry Patrinos, wanted to know: “What do you mean by ‘school grant’?” “Are you sure this is the question you want to ask?”

As the organizers, we deliberately chose a provocative and pointed question in order to generate a lively, open conversation. To set the stage, we outlined four theories of change:
  1. Money is what matters. The belief here is that money is the binding constraint. Schools are chronically underfinanced; all they need is more discretionary funds and they will increase learning. This assumes that they know how.
  2. Money + training, for school directors, is what matters. This posits that money serves as a hook for getting school management teams onboard with some basic management training. If school management is improved, then we can boost learning, à la Bloom et al.
  3. Money + training, for parents and local communities, is what matters. The third theory identifies local accountability as the main issue, assuming that by providing money and training for parents, they will become more empowered to demand better services from the school, and perhaps increase expectations for their children’s learning.
  4. Money + attention to learning is what matters. This idea suggests that school grants can serve as a way to align stakeholders around the desired results; in this case, learning. There may even be a “labelling” effect by stipulating clearly to schools what the money is for, e.g. “improving reading”.
More of our education experts weighed in. Rafael de Hoyos, Melissa Adelman and Moussa Blimpo presented school grant schemes from Mexico (see here and here), Haiti and  Gambia to illustrate some of the potential paths from grants to learning.

In the end, what did we learn? Do school grants buy learning?

Mostly no. Big caution sign here: while there is little evidence that school grants can improve learning outcomes, it might be because grant schemes are usually not designed with learning as the end goal. For a broader set of examples, see Making Schools Work.

What are grants good for then? In the majority of cases, grants seem most effective in boosting enrolment (especially for girls), ensuring access for all, reducing teacher and student absenteeism, and reducing grade repetition and drop-outs (for a more complete summary of the evidence, see Dave’s recent blog on the topic). 

Grants as a gateway. One of the questions asked during the discussion was whether or not it even made sense to use school grants if they didn’t buy learning. Even if they don’t always immediately buy learning; however, the leveraging power of the school grant should not be underestimated. If we believe that local accountability, or school management, or even just greater attention to learning is how better outcomes will be generated, then perhaps money does become necessary for any of our theories of change to play out.  

For example, school grants may be the entry point to additional, bigger reforms by catalyzing local participation, building capacity, creating incentives for performance and increasing accountability.

In the Mexican school-based management program Apoyo a la Gestión Escolar (AGE), small monetary grants were provided to parent associations to invest in school items they deemed important. Parents also received training in resource management and other participatory skills in order to hold schools more accountable. As a result, the program showed that parental participation did make a difference, and thus paved the way for other school-based management models in Mexico like Programas Escuelas de Calidad (PEC).

Let’s face it – school grants are a big part of what we do in our education projects, so it’s crucial to wield them in ways that can eventually produce the results we seek. Design is key; some think there is no better way to ruin a perfectly good standardized test than by attaching stakes such as school grants to it. It is also important to remember that school grants, like any other education intervention, are not a silver bullet – but their ability to pave a pathway to change is undebatable.

If you have experience with designing, implementing or evaluating school grants – we’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment and let us know what you would do the next time you’re working on one.

Find out more about World Bank Group education on Twitter and Flipboard.


Jessica Lee

Education Specialist

Peter Holland

Human Development Program Leader

Wenna Price

Education Consultant

Join the Conversation

tom abeles
December 17, 2015

one of the issues here is the frank admission by the WB that their job is to give money which is the primary raison for most NGO's and foundations. There is no thought given as to how the WB defines its role might be the issue at hand, starting with a blank sheet. Experimenters know that they can not consider themselves separate from their experiments. Or as Einstein said to Heisenberg, what you see is based on your theory as your lens. As Ben Ralingam in Aid on the Edge of Chaos points out, this is not limited to education but is endemic within the current development paradigm.

Jessica Lee
December 18, 2015

Dear Tom,

Thank you for your comment. The World Bank does indeed provide loans to country governments, but it also provides credits/grants (to the poorest countries) and technical assistance. In fact, many countries who borrow from the World Bank primarily use it for the technical and advisory support that is offered in addition to the money. The World Bank has a wealth of examples to draw from in many countries, as is the case with school grants. There is evidence from all around the world on what school grants can and cannot do. In Education, we care about ensuring that learning occurs in all places, for all children – and will continue to work towards that objective in partnership with our country clients and other development partners and agencies

Wayne Jennings
December 19, 2015

I ask, Learning what? One can be tested and declared learned in obscure information. Some of that occurs in schools now and leads to disengagement by many students. I'm interested in clarity about the purposes of schooling which I see leading to effective citizenship, productive careers, lifelong learners and personal development. In my view this leads to a paradigm change where we unpack each of this high level outcomes and then detail learning activities to achieve them.
In other words it doesn't start with passing or mastering traditional school courses but rather the attainment of competencies leading to the high level outcomes.

Jessica Lee
December 21, 2015

Dear Wayne,
Thanks for your comment. We agree that attaining competencies in a range of areas (both subject-related and cognitive) is important. Oftentimes, assessments (both formal and informal) can indicate what level of attainment a student has reached. The World Bank has numerous blogs on different types of learning assessments, from large-scale to citizen-led.