The Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre aims to promote education as an engine for sustainable development.

The REAL centre builds on the Faculty of Education’s strong expertise in research of the highest quality that aims to address real problems and influence policy on the ground

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz

A new centre that will focus on understanding the barriers to education among disadvantaged children, and on identifying solutions to overcome those barriers, was officially launched in Cambridge on Tuesday 16 June.

The Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, based within the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, aims to promote education as an engine for sustainable development, and to pioneer research into overcoming obstacles to education including poverty, gender, ethnicity, language and disability.

The launch event at Corpus Christi College’s McCrum Lecture Theatre brought together speakers including Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia and current Chair of the Global Partnership for Education, and Dr Hans Brattskar, State Secretary of Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to discuss the subject of “Achieving social transformation through education”.

Welcoming the keynote speakers, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, said: “The launch of the REAL centre is an opportunity to celebrate education, and girls’ education in particular, and to underline the importance of education as a key to social transformation.”

He reminded the audience that “the REAL centre builds on the Faculty of Education’s strong expertise in research of the highest quality that aims to address real problems and influence policy on the ground. It will focus on the challenges of the most marginalised –including girls from poor households, or those with disabilities—in the poorest countries, notably in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.”

Addressing a packed auditorium, Julia Gillard spoke of the 121 million children of primary and lower-secondary school age who are not in school –at least 60 million of whom are girls. At current rates of enrolment, she said, it will be at least another century before the gap in learning outcomes is bridged between developed and developing countries. “Unsurprisingly,” she noted, “girls will get there last.”

The benefits of all girls in developing countries being educated to secondary level would be immediate and long-lasting –a significant decrease in child marriages and a fall in child deaths being only two of the most obvious. “The education of girls is transformative. It is a moral duty and also an economic imperative. Business as usual is nowhere near good enough. By not acting we fail the children and deny ourselves the best possible future.”

She called for “more research, more resources and more innovation” to ensure that all countries are committed to inclusive and equitable quality education. “It is a mammoth undertaking”, she said, before adding: “The need for the REAL centre is pressing. It will make a difference in helping us to understand what works to make education more equitable. It will generate much light to educate every child, including every girl. The REAL centre will be one of real achievement.”

Speaking about Norway’s efforts to ensure global equality of education, ahead of the Oslo Summit for Education and Development in July, Dr Hans Brattskar said: “Equality of education means education for all, including children with disabilities.  It also means ensuring education for the 36% of children currently living in areas of armed conflict or caught in humanitarian crises.” To provide equitable education “we have to ensure research is applied in a way that leads to concrete policy and learning”, he said. “REAL will be key to strengthening this evidence-base.”.

Professor Pauline Rose, director of the REAL, spoke about the new centre on a panel following the keynote presentations: “The three words that describe REAL are rigour, partnership and impact. We have to deliver high-quality research that is accessible to policy-makers. We can’t do this on our own, and so partnerships are essential.”

She announced a new partnership with the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed), the Cambridge-based international non-profit organisation that aims to tackle poverty and inequality by supporting girls to go to school and develop leadership qualities across countries in sub-Saharan Africa. “It is difficult to find evidence for what works in education,” Professor Rose said. “Camfed’s work is an important exception. We look forward to working together with Camfed, drawing on their experience on the ground, and working together to provide a strong evidence-base on girls’ education.”

Sharing the panel with her was Camfed’s Chief Executive Officer, Lucy Lake, who remarked: “We have to be insistent on girls’ rights to education. That has to be our starting point. But we must go beyond and make explicit the link between girls’ education and economic opportunity. That’s where evidence-based research is essential.”

Also on the panel was Fiona Mavhinga, a founding member of the CAMA, the pan-African network of young women leaders for girls’ education supported by Camfed, who spoke movingly about her own experience of achieving education despite challenging circumstances. “I am sitting her today as a lawyer because of the support I got from Camfed. I was a seventeen-year old girl from a disadvantaged Zimbabwean family and they encouraged me to study law.”

Today, Ms Mavhinga supports young women engaging with government authorities to prevent gender-based violence and discrimination. The child-protection guidance she developed has been recognised as best practice and adopted by the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative.

Earlier in the day, Professor Rose, Julia Gillard and Fiona Mavhinga had joined the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, at the Mulberry School in London for the announcement of a new UK-US initiative to promote access to education for girls worldwide, in which REAL will be a partner alongside Camfed, the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID), USAID, and Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.



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