From Assessment to Action: Lessons from the Development of Theories of Change with the People’s Action for Learning Network

Keywords: Theory of Change, Citizen-led Assessments, Global South, Learning outcomes


In recent years, much attention has been given to extremely poor levels of learning outcomes in low-and lower-middle income countries. Citizen-led assessments have played a vital role in highlighting this “learning crisis.” Having developed these citizen-led assessments, members of the People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network are now increasingly devising and implementing actions aimed at tackling the learning crisis in different country contexts. This article documents the process we undertook of developing theories of change with PAL Network members across 10 countries to inform their shift from assessment of children’s learning to action aimed at raising learning outcomes. The article highlights, in particular, the importance for theories of change to take account of context in identifying appropriate actions. Based on their country circumstances, the actions identified by PAL Network members vary, for example, from using assessment data to influence national government reform, to more localized activities associated with “teaching at the right level.” For appropriate actions to tackle the learning crisis to be identified and successfully implemented, an important lesson from the PAL Network experience is the need to enable South-to-South learning and adaptation. As such, the article highlights a pressing need for flexible and iterative theories of change that reflect contextual realities.

Author Biographies

Benjamin Alcott, University of Cambridge

Benjamin Alcott is a lecturer at the UCL Institute of Education. He received his doctoral degree, in education policy, from the University of Michigan. His research interests include early years education policy in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, inequities in learning, and the economics of education.

Pauline Rose, University of Cambridge

Pauline Rose is professor of international education and director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on understanding and tackling barriers to inequalities in education in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. She has extensive experience of working with research teams, policy actors and practitioners in these contexts.

Ricardo Sabates, University of Cambridge

Ricardo Sabates is a reader in education and member of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. He achieved his doctoral degree in development studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests include social outcomes of learning, understanding the role of education over the lifecourse for marginalized populations, strengthening accountability for learning from grassroots community engagement.

Christine Ellison, University of Cambridge

Christine Ellison is a doctoral candidate in the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge. She is also a research associate in the UNESCO Centre, Ulster University. Her research interests include mixed methods approaches to understanding education inequalities and the political and economic factors driving education policy.