By listening to the voices of the poorest people in some of the world's poorest countries, the Cambridge-led RECOUP project has generated a wealth of new data that is helping make education better at alleviating poverty.

Our focus is to produce high quality research on how the poor experience education and what can be done to improve the benefits they receive from schooling, whether that's earning more money, being more active citizens, or helping young women achieve greater autonomy over their fertility

Madeleine Arnot, Professor in Sociology of Education

Having better access to education makes people better able to lift themselves out of poverty – or so received wisdom says. But for the poorest in developing countries, the reality is far more complex. And for academics, governments and funders, major questions remain about how the process of poverty alleviation through education works.

Now, a major international, interdisciplinary research project led by the University of Cambridge is providing a wealth of new evidence that is helping governments and donors worldwide maximise the impact of education on poverty alleviation.

RECOUP – the Research Consortium on Educational Outcomes and Poverty – was set up in 2005 with funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Led by the Centre for Education and Development at Cambridge, RECOUP draws together a multidisciplinary team of more than 50 researchers from seven institutions in the UK, South Asia and sub‐Saharan Africa.

As well as being regions where the challenge of achieving the Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme poverty by 2015 remains greatest, South Asia and sub‐Saharan Africa are areas of low school efficiency – many children often leaving school with low levels of education – and high inequalities in educational outcomes.

According to Cambridge's Professor Christopher Colclough, who led RECOUP: “Education can help reduce poverty in two ways: by strengthening poor people's capabilities, and by driving social and economic change. But these mechanisms often don't work to the benefit of the poor, so while education can promote social mobility, persisting educational inequalities – themselves driven by poverty – perpetuate socio-economic inequality and exclusion. Research shows that schooling increases earnings and employment, affects values and attitudes, and has a positive impact on population control, health and nutrition, but we are less sure of why some of these relationships occur – and whether they continue to hold.”

To better understand the processes at play – and provide a firmer evidence base for policy change – RECOUP researchers focused on six broad themes: disability and poverty; youth, gender and citizenship; health and fertility; skills acquisition; aid partnerships and educational outcomes; and public‐private partnerships in education provision.

Working in rural and urban areas of Kenya, Ghana, India and Pakistan, RECOUP researchers used qualitative and quantitative methods – including household surveys in each of the countries – to listen to the voices of the poor and gather a wealth of new data to inform policy and practice.

To illustrate the potential life and death impact of education, Arnot recalls an example from Ghana, where following disastrous flooding, food aid was required. “Villages had to fill in forms saying how much food they needed, but in this particular village nobody could read well enough to fill in the necessary forms. When the food truck arrived, the village received only one bag of food, but they could have had two had one of the villagers been able to complete the paperwork.”

Through a range of conferences, policy briefs and more than 100 peer‐reviewed papers and books, RECOUP's major body of work is making a major contribution to debate on education and poverty among governments, policy makers, teachers, schools and non‐governmental organisations both nationally and internationally.

In the UK, between 2008 and 2013 RECOUP helped improve both the volume of UK aid to education and its allocation – resulting in greater emphasis on the most needy countries. During the same period research by Colclough, RECOUP's director, had a significant influence on DFID aid policy.

His analysis of financing for primary education fed into the joint DFID/Treasury document From Commitment to Action: Education, providing the evidence for the UK's 10‐year 2006 pledge of £8.5 billion to support education. This commitment resulted in UK aid to education increasing from £360 million in 2007/08 to £625 million in 2011/12 – an average increase of 15% a year. By helping identify ways in which aid was being misallocated, RECOUP research also underpinned major reforms in the criteria DFID used to decide the distribution of educational aid. According to DFID: “It provided an initial lens with which to assess education allocations, and it allowed DFID to identify where it would be desirable and feasible to scale up education activity.”

RECOUP's evidence on returns to education influenced the content of DFID's Learning for All: DFID's education strategy 2010‐2015, as well as influencing DFID's thinking on research priorities.

And RECOUP's impact extends to developing countries and international bodies. Described by DFID India as “key reading”, RECOUP research on aid to education was used by DFID's Delhi office in its discussions with the Indian government in 2010/11. And in the United Nations, RECOUP's research on disability has informed UNESCO's Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2010.