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The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Education systems, aspiration and learning in remote rural settings

Research Partners:

Photo: A classroom in India. Photo credit: Kirsten/Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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Principal Investigator: Nicola Ansell. Lead Organisation: Brunel University

Co-investigator: Peggy Froerer; Ian Rivers; Roy Huijsmans

Although there have been major advances in school enrolment in the past two decades, the outcomes of education are often poor, especially among girls, young people from indigenous groups and ethnic minorities, those of lower socio-economic status and in remote rural areas. The World Bank and other globally influential agencies have recently been promoting the view that this is partly due to the limited aspirations of such children and their parents. There is certainly some evidence that disadvantaged groups have lower aspirations, and consequently achieve less in school.

Yet paradoxically, there is also evidence that many youth from structurally disadvantaged groups have unattainably high aspirations, a situation that leads to disillusionment and large numbers of young people leaving school without the skills and knowledge to participate in rural livelihoods which they see as representing the failure of their aspirations. 

There are two key problems with much of the current academic and policy discourse concerning education and aspiration. First, the conceptualisation of aspiration is very narrow. Interventions aimed at 'raising aspiration' assume it is one-dimensional, yet aspirations may be more or less concrete, more or less stable; they are emotionally imbued and value laden and may relate to very different types of imagined future. Little is understood of how aspirations function to produce change, individually or collectively.

Second, little is known of the processes through which school systems shape young people's aspirations, or of how young people's aspirations shape either their engagement with schooling or the learning they achieve. Aspiration is known to be produced in complex ways, in relation to broad-scale (even global) social and economic situations as well as family and community relationships. How these play out in schools requires further study.


To provide insight into how education systems can develop effective polices and interventions that work with young people's aspirations to enhance learning outcomes and address structural disadvantage in remote rural places


  1. To develop a robust understanding of the mechanisms that connect schooling, aspirations and learning outcomes
  2. To develop methods suitable for capturing and understanding these mechanisms 

Research questions

  1. What roles do 21st century education systems play in shaping young people's aspirations in remote rural areas?
  2. How are the aspirations of young people living in remote rural areas produced in relation to both schooling and their wider social, economic and cultural contexts?
  3. How do young people's aspirations shape their educational engagement and learning outcomes?


The research will be undertaken by a team of experienced investigators alongside three postdoctoral researchers. Fieldwork will be conducted in two schools and their local communities in remote rural areas of India, Laos and Lesotho.

  1. Desk research - analysis of academic literature, organisational reports and policy documents
  2. School-based ethnographic research including participatory group activities with students, lesson observation, discourse analysis of textbooks, curricula and exams, interviews with teachers and students
  3. Community-based ethnographic research including interviews / focus groups with parents, other family members, community leaders, young people in secondary education and young people no longer in education
  4. Interviews with stakeholders in the policy community
  5. Policy-focused dissemination and feedback workshops, cascading up from school students, via local communities, to national and international level stakeholders
  6. Design of a questionnaire, and piloting with 200 young people aged 11-22 in 5 remote rural areas per country, to explore how the qualitative findings might be operationalised for quantitative research.

Further Resources:

Who will benefit from the research?

  • Government education ministries and regional/local government education departments
  • Teacher training institutions
  • International agencies, donors and NGOs engaged in funding or shaping education policies and interventions
  • Youth advocacy and activist groups
  • Academic researchers involved in the project, notably the local researchers, PDRAs and field assistants
  • Academic researchers in education, development studies, youth studies, human geography and anthropology in India, Laos, Lesotho and internationally
  • Ultimately, young people in remote rural communities in low income countries

How will they benefit?

Improved understanding of:

  • Aspiration and its effects
  • Effective qualitative and quantitative methods for researching aspiration
  • The aspirations of young people living remote rural areas
  • How different groups of young people negotiate and construct aspirations, and the role of schooling in this
  • The consequences of young people's aspirations for their educational engagement and learning
  • Ways in which education systems might work with the aspirations of young people to improve their learning
  • Research capacity building

What will be done to ensure that they have the opportunity to benefit?

  • Our local research partners include Plan Laos and Oxfam India, both of which are involved directly in developing education-focused interventions and have close links with education ministries and the broader policy community.
  • A virtual international advisory group including representatives of international agencies and NGOs will be consulted regularly and kept informed.
  • Stakeholder workshops will be held at the outset, mid-point and end of the fieldwork, during a feedback and dissemination stage and near the end of the project. Key participants will be senior personnel from education ministries and organisations promoting, funding and implementing education projects (see Pathways to Impact). Representatives of youth-focused organisations and local academics will also be invited. The PI has successfully used stakeholder groups with previous projects. The workshops will raise awareness of the research, secure commitment to it, ensure it is locally relevant and that the team is aware of the policy context and of optimal modes and moments to influence policy. The workshops will inform the design of the research and engagement plans, and contribute to data production (see Case for Support). The workshops will also engage with emerging findings and develop policy applications and recommendations. The resulting co-produced knowledge should be both relevant and acceptable to research users in India, Laos, Lesotho and beyond.
  • The research and emerging findings will be publicised in formats tailored to diverse audiences in India, Laos, Lesotho and internationally, using inter alia a project website, briefing papers, internet-based resources such as the Southern African Regional Poverty Network and education forums, as well as conventional media such as newspapers, radio and social media. 
  • An international dissemination workshop in London will target NGOs, donors and agencies interested in education in remote rural areas.
  • Our local research partners in India, Laos and Lesotho have been fully involved in developing the proposal and will gain experience in research design, participatory research and academic writing.
  • Findings will be disseminated to academics from diverse disciplines through conference presentations and articles in international peer reviewed journals as well as journals published in India, Laos and Lesotho.
  • The impact strategy will be evaluated on an ongoing basis. Participation in stakeholder workshops will be monitored and feedback sought to inform regular review and updating of our strategy. A year after the end of the project, the strategy will be evaluated through an open-ended stakeholder questionnaire.


Primary theme: 
Grant Reference: 
Project Status: 
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Fund Start Date: 
September 1st, 2016
Fund End Date: 
August 31st, 2018
Fund Currency Code: 
Fund Value: