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Education outcomes and poverty

Children from Ivory Coast go to school in Liberia

Research Consortium on Educational Outcomes and Poverty (RECOUP)

Project summary

Education systems can assist poverty reduction in two quite different ways. Firstly, by strengthening the individual and collective capabilities of poor people, such that they become less poor or escape poverty altogether; secondly by facilitating an enabling environment for social and economic transformation, leading to stronger, more secure and pro-poor economies, democratic processes, co-operative social networks, and sound environmental management.

The first channel justifies direct educational assistance to poor people. The second justifies inclusive investments in socially transformative educational systems. Often, these mechanisms do not, at present, work to the benefit of the poor. Although education can promote social mobility, persisting educational inequalities – themselves driven by poverty – perpetuate subsequent socio-economic inequality and exclusion. The project’s core research objective is to understand what drives this cycle of deprivation, and to examine how its reproduction can be broken.

Research has shown that schooling increases earnings; that primary schooling can deliver particularly strong economic benefits; that schooling helps to improve productivity in urban and rural self-employment; that other development goals in the areas of population control, health and nutrition are more rapidly achieved where education is widely available; and that education affects values and attitudes, the acquisition of 'social capital' and more democratic governance.

However, it is less sure why some of these relationships occur, and whether they continue to hold. Extant estimates of rates of return to education are methodologically unsound, often out of date, and frequently omit consideration of differences in ability, parental background or school quality. Circumstances have changed, particularly in Africa, where labour market conditions (with at best slowly growing formal employment and greatly increased outflows of primary leavers from quality-constrained school systems) suggest that economic returns at primary level have fallen relative to higher levels of education.

Primary schooling alone may then, no longer deliver the full benefits previously associated with it. The intrinsic and human rights cases provide sufficient justification for the universalisation of primary schooling, but the full development benefits of its achievement may, in future, be gained only if secondary level expansion targets are increased, and/or if much greater attention is paid to improving the quality of primary schooling. The research should facilitate a more subtle interpretation of the MDG goals and targets, contributing to understanding of the processes and consequences of educational development and of priorities for national and international policy.

Poverty often leads to inferior educational outcomes. Those outcomes in turn play a major role in determining the future incidence and extent of poverty. The core objective of RECOUP was to study the mechanisms that drive this cycle of deprivation, identifying the policies needed to ensure that educational outcomes benefit the disadvantaged.

Between 2005 and 2010, RECOUP conducted six collaborative projects:

  • Disability and poverty
  • Youth, gender & citizenship
  • Health & fertility
  • Skills acquisition and its impact upon lives and livelihoods
  • Aid partnerships and educational outcomes
  • Public-private partnerships in the provision of education

Research team

Director: Professor Christopher Colclough

Co-Investigators: Professor Madeleine Arnot; Dr Nidhi Singal

Associated Researchers: Dr Shailaja Fennell, Centre for Development Studies, University of Cambridge; Professor Geeta Kingdon, University of London, Institute of Education; Professor Fatuma Chege, Kenyatta University, Kenya; Dr Lesley Casely-Hayford, Associates for Change (AFC), Ghana Professor Roger Jeffery, School of Social and Political Studies (SSPS) of the University of Edinburgh; Dr Claire Noronha, Collaborative Research and Dissemination (CORD), India; Dr Faisal Bari, Mahbub Ul Haq Human Development Centre (MHHDC) and IDEAS, Pakistan

Partners: The RECOUP research team comprised three UK institutions and four from Africa and South Asia:

  • The Centre for Education and International Development (CEID), University of Cambridge - lead partner;
  • School of Social and Political Studies (SSPS), University of Edinburgh;
  • Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE), University of Oxford;
  • Associates for Change (AFC), Ghana;
  • Collaborative Research and Dissemination (CORD), India;
  • Kenyatta University, Kenya;
  • Mahbub Ul Haq Human Development Centre (MUHHDC), Pakistan.


2005 - 2010


UK Department for International Development

Further information

For publications, see the RECOUP website.