Safer Schools Translate into Better Learning, Right?

July 19, 2014

This post originally appeared on the Global Partnership for Education site on 12 June 2014.

The need to get more data about school-related gender-based violence.



It seems almost self-evident: when school environments are relatively safe and free from violence there should be more and better learning.

But intuitive as that statement might seem, there’s a lot we don’t know about the correlation between a safe learning environment and educational achievement. In fact, there has been little to no research on the subject, which handicaps our ability to keep schools safe around the world. That’s why a recent seminar on safe learning environments held by the Africa Bureau of US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Education Division was so timely and useful. The seminar unveiled and analyzed the results of a USAID-commissioned literature review of research examining the intersection of school-related gender based violence (SRGBV) on learning.

What is school violence and what is it not?

The seminar posed questions such as: What are the defining features of successful interventions? What are existing measurement frameworks and indicators? And how can we raise the profile of SRGBV within the education community?

Any discussion of this issue must begin by establishing what school violence is and what it is not.

On the affirmative side, school violence encompasses a broad range of behaviors and activities, such as corporal punishment, cruel and humiliating forms of psychological punishment, sexual and gender-based violence, bullying, fighting, and gang-related violence. School violence does not include, however, natural and environmental disasters, or even attacks by outside groups or on schools.

Though research on the relationship between safe environments and learning achievement is much thinner than it should be, there has been some data connecting SRGBV and learning. For example, a 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) in three countries shows that reading achievement varies with school safety, discipline, and bullying.

More data is needed

Another study of primary schools, by the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ), shows a correlation of violence and test scores. But it also found numerous gaps in data. That’s because there are few large-scale quantitative studies and no longitudinal studies and little data on social identity and school violence. What’s more the data rely heavily on teacher’s perceptions. The cross-sectional studies are unable to tell us about the direction of the casual effect and it is difficult to distinguish between the effects of the school violence and other aspects of school climate.

Dr. Luis Crouch, one of researchers for the USAID literature review, was able to project that violence in schools is associated with a reduction of one grade in academic achievement. This would have a high financial cost.

What does school violence cost?

Using spending on primary education and the average length of the primary cycle as anchors for an informal estimate, one “lost” grade of achievement is equivalent to about $18 billion in the lower income and lower middle income countries. As a point of comparison, Dr. Crouch pointed out, that total Overseas Development Assistance to developing countries is around $14 billion.

Thus, the cost associated with school violence is about the same as total donor spending on education.  This figure, as enormous and shocking as it is, really makes the case for further donor discussion on how to address this issue.  

USAID is planning to address the data gaps in understanding SRGBV and academic performance in schools with violence using a new program called OASIS. This program will help generate data, measure impact, and raise awareness with national and international education stakeholders. It will also support impact evaluations in a few USAID countries and the development of a conceptual framework with core indicators.

That’s something the development community is looking forward to. Common sense and anecdotal information tells us that violence is a looming challenge for schools all over the world. But unless we measure it with some reliability and precision and fully understand the causal links between school violence and education achievement, we will never be able to prescribe and execute strategies that will actually solve the problem.

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Koli Banik is an Education Specialist with the Global Partnership for Education Secretariat. Her areas of expertise are in girls’ education, gender equity, out of school children, teacher issues,...

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