Mobilizing the power of volunteers through citizen led assessments

By measuring foundational literacy and numeracy, citizen-led assessments have helped demonstrate the scale of the learning crisis

Young students with their textbooks, Wat Bo Primary School, Cambodia  Siem Reap, November 30, 2016 Credit: GPE/Chor Sokunthea

Engaging citizens in action for development is nothing new. For years, civil society organizations have tried to engage with citizens to improve transparency and accountability. Parental involvement has been sought to monitor teacher attendance, to make sure that books and equipment have been delivered (and are actually used), and that school building improvements take place.  Yet citizen engagement remains low and, at least in education, there is little evidence that engagement has helped to increase learning outcomes for children. 

Citizen-led assessments offer an alternative form of participation

By measuring foundational literacy and numeracy, citizen-led assessments have helped demonstrate the scale of the learning crisis to key stakeholders within communities, in national governments and globally.  Clearly, if children are not able to understand the basic concepts of numeracy or be able to read and comprehend the text it is impossible to reach higher competencies.  Just as importantly though, the simplicity of the assessment serves as the initial bridge to break the information barrier that exists between parents and schools in terms of understanding children’s learning of basic literacy and numeracy.

The use of the assessment as a tool to identify learning gaps has been essential for pedagogical approaches to teach children at the right level. As such, citizen-led assessments have been important in developing countries, because they provide evidence for better policy dialogue and sector planning. Such evidence is vital for informing the Global Partnership for Education’s support to countries.

Mobilizing citizen involvement at scale

The scale of citizen involvement in these assessments is remarkable. The PAL network estimate that in one year alone they have more than 150,000 volunteers globally supporting the collection of assessments within households, sharing information collected with parents and/or engaging in actions to transform the quality of education. 

Volunteers come from diverse backgrounds, ranging from civic society to non-governmental organizations as well as academia and civil service. The volunteers receive training to ensure the quality of data collection, and to provide them with new skills.

Through these volunteers, members of the PAL Network have uncovered the potential of civil society to support children’s learning. In order to maximize this potential, it is crucial to focus on how to support the growth and sustainability of citizen participation globally.

Identifying strategic priorities for realizing the potential of citizen engagement

The PAL Network’s 5th annual meeting, in Xalapa, Mexico gave network members the chance to identify their strategic priorities for sustaining citizen engagement:

  1. It is crucial to maintain the motivation of volunteers. There are many organizations that provide monetary incentives to volunteers, which is not always possible for citizen led assessments as they recruit thousands of volunteers for assessments or actions. Therefore, it is important to continue to raise awareness of the learning crisis and the potential contribution that volunteers can achieve in terms of improving learning outcomes. 
  2. It is necessary to find the potential of volunteerism within local communities.  There are many different reasons why people engage in voluntary activities, and these are not always fully explored.  Similarly, there is the potential within communities to find local leaders who are willing to provide their time and expertise for improving children’s education and hence enhance future opportunities for the next generation.
  3. For relatively poor volunteers in marginalized communities the opportunity cost of engaging in volunteer activities is relatively high. Volunteering for collecting assessments within the household requires significantly less time that volunteering in programs to improve children’s learning.  It is important that volunteers are supported with mentoring, training and other forms of skill building so that there is a return for the invested time of volunteers..  

Engaging citizens in a shared understanding for shared solutions

The fact that so many citizens around the world are choosing to volunteer their time for these learning assessments is remarkable. This offers the potential for an approach that is genuinely distinctive and transformative, since it moves data collection from a process that is aloof and technocratic to one that is participatory and shares ownership. This matters because shared ownership in understanding the learning crisis provides a foundation for shared ownership in finding its solutions.

To unlock this potential, further efforts to understand and support citizens’ participation are essential. Working together with the PAL network, we hope to learn more about pathways through which the power of these volunteers is being unleashed to link assessment to action


Pauline Rose is a professor of international education at the University of Cambridge and the chair of the GPE independent evaluation committee.  She joined Cambridge University in February 2014 as...
University of Cambridge
Ricardo Sabates is a Reader in Education at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge and member of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre.  His research relates primarily to...

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