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.

This research will investigate how schools work effectively with families and communities in rural areas to create the optimal practices, cultures and conditions to strengthen their organisational and professional capacities.

The project started in February 2020 and will end in January 2023.


    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 those less disadvantaged.

    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.

    This 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 experience.

    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. 


    The project utilises an interdisciplinary mixed methods approach, starting with three complementary systematic reviews of existing research in the area, which along with in-depth expert consultation will inform the design of a systems-oriented, multi-layered intervention in socioeconomically disadvantaged rural communities in South Africa.  The intervention aims to strengthen the organisational and professional capacities of schools as enabling spaces for children's learning and development. 

    Pilot and survey

    A six-month pilot will be carried out in 18 rural primary schools in the province of Mpumalanga.

    Surveys and participatory ethnographic methods will be used with children and adults in schools and their communities to explore how variation in intervention tasks, organisational factors (especially school leadership, professional capacity of the staff, learning culture), and school and community contexts combine to create variability in outcomes (i.e. what seems to work, for whom, under what circumstances).


    The refined intervention will then be scaled up in an efficacy investigation in 58 rural primary schools (with 4,600+ children, 230+ teachers/school leaders) and their communities in Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo.

    Similar evaluation methods will be used to assess the extent of change in schools' organisational and professional capacities and how such change has impacted on children's learning and health outcomes. 

    Key outcome measures

    The research will explore various qualitative and quantitative outcomes at programme/intervention, school, pupil and community levels. 

    • Children’s height and weight (with ethical approval) will be collected in different stages of the project (including baseline) as a health measure.
    • The perceived outcomes at school and community levels will be used and triangulated to baseline and monitor the influence of social dynamics (including community social capital, organisational capacity and culture) on children’s attitude and behaviour change. 
    • Economic outcomes will explore the costs and feasibility of the complex interventions.
    Planned impact

    We aim to generate new understandings about how systems-oriented actions strengthen rural primary schools as enabling spaces of learning and healthy development for pupils aged 6-9 years.

    Improving teachers' capacity and turning schools into quality environments for teaching and learning will be a key outcome which will have powerful positive impacts on pupils' academic and health outcomes.

    Additionally, the project will have positive benefits for end users in policy and practice communities in South Africa and many other countries where reducing inequalities in education and health remains a persistent challenge.

    The project's key beneficiary groups include:

    Children aged 6-9 years

    • Improved foundation phase learning outcomes (indicated by change in literacy and numeracy outcomes), and
    • objective and subjective health and wellbeing outcomes (such as growth status, BMI, QALY) - thus setting strong foundations for their future development.

    Foundation Phase teachers

    • Increased knowledge and capacity to participate in school processes that promote interaction between different levels in the child-school-community system and
    • improved pedagogical practice for more effective provision of the whole-child curriculum.

    School leaders

    • Increased capacity and capabilities to engage stakeholder participation across the child-school-community system to bolster the learning and wellbeing environments for children in the Foundation Phase.

    Families and rural communities

    • Increased participation by families of children in school functioning and improved learning mechanisms and social connections in communities that foster families' collective knowledge and capacity to tackle the roots of social, education and health inequalities.

    Government officials

    • Department of Basic Education (SA); DIFD (UK): benefiting from systematic evidence on what effective and healthy schools and their larger communities can offer to transform children's learning, health and wellbeing over time.

    Intergovernmental agencies and NGOs (OECD, UNESCO)

    • The research methodologies and findings as well as the intervention outcomes may be used to inform their cross-country initiatives that foster the transformative power that schools and their communities can offer to advance the sustainable development agenda internationally.

    Principal Investigator

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


    University College London

    • Professor Lynn Ang - Professor of Early Childhood and Head of Department of the Department of Learning and Leadership, IOE
    • Dr Rupert Higham -  Lecturer in Educational Leadership, IOE
    • 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 - Director of the Centre for Teachers and Teaching Research, IOE
    • Professor Jolene Skordis-Worrall, UCL Institute for Global Health

    University of Pretoria

    • Otilia Fortunate Chiramba - Post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for the Study of Resilience
    • Mabeth Crafford - Senior Research Assistant at the Centre for the Study of Resilience
    • 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
    • Amber Eksteen - Senior Research Assistant, Centre for the Study of Resilience
    • Professor Ronel Ferreira, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Educational Psychology
    • Ralph Hwenjere - Senior Research Assistant, Centre for the Study of Resilience
    • Renald Morris - Post-doctoral researcher
    • Sumanah Mustafa - Senior Research Assistant, Centre for the Study of Resilience
    • Akhona Mabasa - Senior Research Assistant, Centre for the Study of Resilience
    • Professor Peet du Toit - Associate Professor, Department of Physiology
    • Dr Hannelie Du Preez - Researcher and Lecturer in Early Childhood Education
    • Dr Surette van Staden - Centre for Evaluation and Assessment at the Faculty of Education

    Health Professions Council of South Africa

    • Liz-Marie Basson - Research Psychologist

    University of Limpopo

    • Professor Mahlapahlapana Themane

    London South Bank University

    • Professor Patrick Callaghan, Dean of the School of Applied Sciences and Professor of Mental Health Science