IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Schools as Enabling Spaces to Improve Learning and Health-Related Quality of Life

A research project focused on primary school children in rural communities in South Africa.

Inequalities in education and health are deeply rooted in social and economic disadvantage. This research investigates how schools work effectively with communities in rural areas by developing and evaluating a systems-oriented and multi-layered complex intervention.

The project aims to create the optimal practices, cultures and conditions to strengthen schools' organisational and professional capacities, and become enabling spaces for young children's improvement in learning and health. 

It started in February 2020 and will end in April 2023, and is funded by the ESRC.

Enabling Schools Toolkit

A whole-school intervention

Grounded in a holistic, philosophical approach to the "whole child" education, this intervention brings together school leaders, teachers, and community members to nurture and enrich 6- to 9-year-old learners’ engagement in reading.

The design of the intervention is informed by a strong research-informed belief that school leaders and teachers in rural areas, together with community participation, can beat the odds and enable children to achieve and flourish despite adversity.

About the research


Inequalities in education and health are deeply rooted in social and economic disadvantage. In South Africa, 38% of children live in rural communities and are significantly more likely to be deprived of opportunities for quality education and health-related quality of life than their less disadvantaged peers.

This research aims to address this persistent structural challenge and establish how schools can beat the odds and enable children to achieve and thrive despite their location in high-poverty communities.

The project is grounded in an ethic of social justice and is led by a UK and South Africa interdisciplinary team from Education, Health, Psychology, Sociology, and Health Economics. This mixed methods research will establish a comprehensive, empirically grounded theory of practice – i.e. organising schools as enabling spaces for improvement in learning and health.

It focuses on the Foundation Phase of primary schooling (children aged 6-9) because:

  • this is a critical period of transition from early childhood to middle childhood when early interventions can make a significant impact on long-term outcomes, and
  • this is also a key transition phase when children begin developing a sense of belonging to quality schools that can provide protective environments for those who are 'at risk' because of their dysfunctional early childhood experiences.

Thus, in contrast to existing discrete and narrowly focused health interventions in schools, this research regards improving whole-child quality education (SDG4) as a health intervention in its own right to transform the health-related quality of life for children and adults (SDG3) in rural communities in South Africa.

By doing so, the research will make a timely contribution to understandings of how different sectors may work more effectively with schools to unlock the transformative power of education for the achievement of the other 2030 SDGs systemically and sustainably.

  1. Are there education and health education models in rural primary schools that are sufficient to achieve the objective of improving academic and/or health and wellbeing outcomes for all pupils, especially the socio-economically disadvantaged and/or those in the Foundation Phase, in South Africa? What difficulties might they encounter or give rise to?
  2. What are the key structural, social and cultural challenges – injustices – that rural schools and their communities face in improving the learning and health-related quality of life for all children? 
  3. To what extent, and how, does a systems-oriented approach to building rural schools as enabling spaces for children’s learning and wellbeing improve schools’ professional and organisational capacities to effectively address social, cultural and structural challenges?
  4. What are the similarities and differences in terms of feasibility, acceptability and potential impact of this approach on children between schools with different characteristics of classroom practice (pedagogy and curriculum), conditions and capacities and between rural communities with different characteristics of social conditions and resources?
  5. How cost-effective, sustainable and replicable is this approach in transforming schools’ capacities and connections with local communities to substantially improve children’s learning and wellbeing in South Africa, and beyond?
  6. What are the implications for policy and practice in enhancing the potential of education, and school quality especially, as a means to achieve sustainable development in resource poor, socio-economically disadvantaged communities?

By answering these questions, the research will

  • produce new empirical knowledge about the complex interface between schools, their communities and the social conditions and resources that deeply influence children’s quality of learning and quality of life in rural spaces in South Africa, and
  • provide new evidence on how and why a systemically-connected approach has the potential of building healthy, effective schools that inspire children’s learning and improve their quality of life in more sustainable ways.
Framework and innovation

In this research how children’s quality learning is constructed and supported in schools is grounded in a social-ecological interpretation of human development. This theoretical lens presupposes a process-oriented, ‘person x environment’ model of learning (i.e. indispensable interaction between person and environment). 

A distinctive feature of our methodology is to build on, and extend, research-informed knowledge about what successful schools (especially those serving socioeconomically disadvantaged communities) do to accelerate student learning and wellbeing. This is an often overlooked missing link in scaling-up research on education and health innovations.

A key consideration in this research is to refine school-community collaborative health education approaches in ways that they interact with (i.e. integrated and embedded), rather than add to (i.e. as discrete, add-on components) (Bryk, 2015; Gu et al., 2018), the complex classroom, curriculum and school systems.


Working papers
  • Ann, L., du Preez, H., Basson, L., Ebersöhn, L., & Gu, Q. The role of early childhood development & education in supporting children's learning and well-being in the context of rural education. Journal of Early Years Education (Submitted).
Conference presentations
  • Basson, L., Ebersöhn, L., Murphy, P.K., & Gu, Q. (2023, January). The quality and sustainability of resilience-enabling complex school-based interventions in rural primary schools in the Global South: A Qualitative Evidence Synthesis [Conference Presentation]. Annual Conference of the Education Association of South Africa (EASA) 8 – 11 January 2023.
  • Symposium “Schools as Enabling Spaces to Improve Learning and Health-Related Quality of Life for Primary School Children in Rural Communities in South Africa — Part 1”, 2022 American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting (AERA) in Collaboration with the World Education Research Association (WERA) 2022 Focal Meeting, 25 April, Chicago (virtual), US.
  • Gu, Q., Ebersöhn, L., Callaghan, P., Mills, M., Higham, R. J., Ang, L., & Skordis, J. (2022). Researching School Enablement in Rural Communities: A Global Challenge.
  • Ebersöhn, L., Gu, Q., Callaghan, P., Mills, M., Higham, R. J., Ang, L., & Skordis, J. (2022). Reconceptualizing Research Rigor in Global Challenging Times.
  • Abou Jaoude, G. J., Ebersöhn, L., Rampa, K., Basson, L-M., Oosthuizen, M., Dingle, K., & Skordis, J. (2022). Using PhotoVoice to Explore Well-Being and the Role of Education in Rural South Africa.
  • Symposium “Schools as Enabling Spaces to Improve Learning and Health Outcomes in Rural South Africa — Part 2”, 2022 AERA Annual Meeting in Collaboration with the WERA 2022 Focal Meeting, 25 April, Chicago (virtual), US.
  • Mills, M., & Higham, R. J. (2022). Social Justice in Rural Community Schools: Tensions and Dilemmas.
  • Ding, H., Gu, Q., Graham, M., Ang, L., Du Preez, H., Callaghan, P., Ebersöhn, L., & Themane, M. (2022). The Significance of School Leadership for Primary School Children's Learning and Health in Rural Contexts.
  • Callaghan, P., Ding, H., Gu, Q., Wood, K., McGranahan, R., & Ebersöhn, L. (2022). The Effect of Interventions for Improving Health and Academic Outcomes on Primary School Children Living in Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Communities.
  • Symposium “Rurality as a global challenge: Schools as Enabling Spaces to Improve Learning and Health-related Quality of Life for Rural Primary School Children Part 1: Schools as Enabling Space for Better Learning and Health Outcomes”, 2021 WERA Virtual Focal Meeting, 18 March.
  • Basson, L-M., Gu, Q., & Ebersöhn, L. (2021). Introduction: The Concept and the Methodology.
  • Themane, M., Gu, Q,. Ebersöhn, L., Morris, R., Akinyemi, O, S., & Chiramba, O. F. (2021). The Significance of Schools and School Leadership.
  • Ang, L., Du Preez, H., Mustafa, S., Mabasa, A., Gu, Q., & Ebersöhn, L. (2021). Early Childhood Development & Education.
  • Callaghan, P., Du Toit, P., Wood, K., Ding, H., Ebersöhn, L., & Gu, Q. (2021). Health-Related Quality of Life.
  • Symposium “Rurality as a global challenge: Schools as Enabling Spaces to Improve Learning and Health-related Quality of Life for Rural Primary School Children Part 2: Why Justice and Capability Matter”, 2021 WERA Virtual Focal Meeting, 19 March.
  • Mills, M., Higham, R. J., Crafford, M., Hwenjere, R., Gu, Q., & Ebersöhn, L. (2021). Systematic Educational Disadvantage: A Social Justice Lens.
  • Ebersöhn, L., Gu, Q., Basson, L-M., & Eksteen, A. (2021). Enabling Professional Capabilities.
  • Abou Jaoude, G. J., Skordis, J., Gu, Q., & Ebersöhn, L. (2021). The Capability Approach in Economic Evaluations.


University College London

Principal Investigator

  • Professor Qing Gu - Director of the UCL Centre for Educational Leadership and Professor of Leadership in Education 


  • Professor Lynn Ang - Professor of Early Childhood and Pro-Director and Vice-Dean Research, IOE
  • Dr Rupert Higham -  Associate Professor in Educational Leadership, IOE
  • Dr Huiming Ding – Research Fellow, UCL Centre for Educational Leadership
  • Gerard Abou Jaoude - Research Associate at the UCL Institute for Global Health and Fellow of the UCL Centre for Global Health Economics
  • Professor Martin Mills - Inaugural Director of the Centre for Teachers and Teaching Research, IOE, and Professor in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at Queensland University of Technology
  • Professor Jolene Skordis-Worrall, UCL Institute for Global Health
London South Bank University
  • Professor Patrick Callaghan, Associate Pro Vice Chancellor Research and Enterprise and Professor of Mental Health Science
University of Pretoria

Lead investigator

  • Professor Liesel Ebersöhn - Director of the Centre for the Study of Resilience and Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the Faculty of Education

Co-investigators and researchers

•    Professor Peet du Toit - Associate Professor, Department of Physiology
•    Professor Mahlapahlapana Themane (University of Limpopo)
•    Dr Hannelie Du Preez - Researcher and Lecturer in Early Childhood Education (Wageningen University and Research)
•    Liz-Marie Basson – Project Administrator
•    Professor Marien Graham – Full Professor, Department of Science, Technology and Mathematics Education, University of Pretoria 
•    Marike de la Rey - Senior Research Assistant
•    Princess Mabota-Rapholo - Senior Research Assistant
•    Monique Oosthuizen - Senior Research Assistant
•    Kanye Rampa - Senior Research Assistant