Evidence use in education: six reflections from OTT projects

Evidence use in education is a fast-growing space.

While generating and communicating evidence for decision-making has long been a focus for many in the education sector, evidence use in education is now increasingly becoming a focus.

The SDG4 + High-Level Steering Committee has a priority committee dedicated to exploring how evidence is used in education.

Evidence use in education has been the subject of several recent publications from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), UNESCO, and the National Centre on Education and the Economy (NCEE).

New and emerging initiatives around the world are also exploring this topic and working to strengthen evidence use in education: the new Evidence for Education Network, the What Works Hub for Global Education, the Africa Evidence Network’s youth league and KIX (among others).

Over the past year, OTT has been involved in several collaborations + aimed at strengthening evidence systems, particularly evidence use, in education.

In this blog, we share six key insights and collective reflections from this work.

1. There’s growing interest among funders

There are ongoing efforts among funders to think collectively about evidence use.

Education research funders are interested in, and currently exploring, many different approaches to strengthening evidence use in education.

Funders have supported extensive efforts to expand the production of evidence in education. This remains the focus for many, as shown by the latest grant mapping that we carried out as part of the African Education Research Funders Consortium (AERFC) +

Yet, there are also opportunities to better use the global evidence base in policy and programming decisions. And we are seeing conscious cross-party efforts to think about evidence use in education.

In 2022, the founding recommendations of the AERFC called for funders to provide support across the whole evidence system, including the generation, communication and use of evidence.

In October 2023, the Jacobs Foundation and the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) co-hosted a global event that explored how policy labs can strengthen evidence use in education.

Additionally, evidence uptake and use was a key focus of the Building Evidence in Education (BE2) working group, which met in London in January.

2. A multiplicity of initiatives

However, the intensity of the focus outlined above has also led to diffuse and overlapping conceptualisations and initiatives; ironically, this is making it difficult to effectively use the evidence that is being generated on evidence use in education.

So how can the education sector avoid what Oliver et al memorably described as a “rudderless mass” of evidence-informed policy initiatives?

We believe there’s more room to draw on existing evidence in designing and implementing evidence use efforts in education – both from the education sector and (crucially) from beyond.

Against this backdrop, the platforms for knowledge sharing and collaboration provided by collective efforts + can help ensure that efforts to strengthen evidence use in education are grounded in common understanding and draw on existing learning.

One of the more concerning aspects of the evidence-informed policy space is the fact that it’s not always very good at learning from its own work, so this last point is very important: we must make better use of the evidence on evidence use, particularly from the global south.

This is a priority for us at OTT.

3. Localisation is a strong, shared focus

Localisation is a collective thread that unites all the initiatives. The growing focus on it is emphasising the need for evidence-use-in-education efforts to be grounded in a deep understanding of the surrounding political economy and knowledge systems context.

There are a variety of evidence diagnostic tools that can help to understand how political and other contextual factors shape evidence use. They can also identify entry points for the institutionalisation of evidence.

Strikingly, we didn’t find any use of these in education – although we’re aware that UNESCO and the International Institute for Education Planning (IIEP) are currently developing and trialling an education-specific approach to assess the institutionalisation of evidence use.

4. We need to better understand the political economy of evidence use in education

Linked to the above, there’s a big gap in political economy studies on evidence use in education. While the evidence use and education sectors both contain in-depth recent political economy studies and models, we didn’t find any studies of the political economy of evidence use in education.

This is a really notable absence – especially as we’ve seen and heard a strong recognition of the role of politics in this field.

We’ve also seen persistent calls to better understand this in the literature over the last decade. Funders, researchers and implementing agencies all have direct insight into this issue on an ongoing basis.

As the RISE + programme has affirmed, in education (as in other sectors), politics isn’t a barrier, it’s the way change happens.

So, where are the studies on the political economy of evidence use in education?

This is a gap we’d love to explore further. So far, (like others) we’ve only got as far as identifying it and talking about it – but we’d love to do an in-depth written exploration.

5. Opportunities to influence science, technology and innovation policy

Against a backdrop of persistent (northern) donor influence over research priorities and spending in low- and middle-income countries, there have been strong calls for African governments to strengthen their own research funding.

This is a dynamic space: there are promising national research and development (R&D) reforms underway to establish and strengthen national research policies, funds, prioritisation processes and structures. Recently, we’ve been exploring this in West African contexts, including in Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Nigeria.

National research priorities are typically linked to national development priorities, such as agriculture and industrialisation. But education appears to be absent.

Given the prominence of education in most regional and national development strategies, and the enormous investments made by donors into education research over many years, this is a striking gap.

It’s made harder to investigate by the fact that publicly available information on R&D spending in Africa is limited in general, not just in education.

But, has the education community missed a policy influence opportunity?

Are there opportunities to collaborate with national science and research actors to highlight how research could contribute to achieving education outcomes?

Where and how are public funds being spent on education research and how can donors contribute to this?

6. Understanding education practitioners as evidence users

The emphasis on evidence use in education policy often categorises efforts under broad labels, such as ‘policy and practice,’ where ‘practice’ (the teachers) sometimes seems to be an afterthought.

This trend towards labelling can obscure the nuanced realities of implementing evidence-informed approaches effectively in diverse educational settings.

Teachers and school leaders are critical agents in the evidence ecosystem – they are not and have never been passive recipients of evidence. They generate, engage with, learn from and disseminate different forms of evidence. They are at the nexus of the conversation so we leave them out at our peril.

Their active involvement exemplifies the emerging interest in community-led learning ecosystems, which integrate the practical insights and lived experiences of local educational communities.

Initiatives like Schools2030 and the Education Development Trust’s (EDT’s) randomised control trial work are exploring these issues.

Yet, this presents a different set of challenges in engaging with education practitioners – especially when a lot of the evidence transfer and reflection goes on at a sub-national level, between local education offices and schools, and within teacher training institutions.

We’re looking forward to exploring this issue as part of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) conference on evidence use later this year.

We’re also thrilled to be launching a new partnership with the Jacobs Foundation to support its endeavours to enhance and deepen understanding of how evidence can advance community-led learning ecosystems.

Next steps

Across our partnerships this year, we’re looking forward to learning more about this fast-changing space of evidence use in education.

We’ll continue to share what we learn via our education tag on our website, and we’re looking forward to meeting like-minded colleagues at upcoming events: the ICSEI and What Works Global Hub for Education conferences.

We’re also developing a ‘wish list’ of gaps and persistent unanswered questions that we’re seeing through our work – some of which we’ve outlined above.

We hope to be able to explore these questions further and would love to hear from others who are also interested.

If you’re working on any of these areas or would like to collaborate with us to explore them, please get in touch.


Emily Hayter and Emma Broadbent co-authored a recent brief for the Building Evidence in Education working group. Emily leads OTT’s  EdLabs technical advisory partnership, and co-authored our report last year on policy labs and evidence use in education.

Busayomi Sotunde leads OTT’s partnership with the African Education Research Funders Consortium.

Marcela Morales leads our collaboration with Jacobs Foundation on their Communities of Change model, and co-authored our report last year on policy labs and evidence use in education.