Faculty of Education Ph.D student Stephen Bayley worked on the ‘Early Childhood Development (ECD) Programme’ with DRID’s Education Research Team, gaining a wider understanding of some of the aspects affecting children’s well-being and growth. He told us about his motivations for joining the project and how it may help him in his future career:

“As the UK government department responsible for overseas aid, DFID is an influential thought leader in global education and a pioneer in child development. Before starting the PhD, I had worked with DFID on the supplier side, implementing and advising DFID-funded education programmes. I was curious to build on this knowledge, to deepen my familiarity and understanding of the department from the inside, not least as a major international donor which plays a key role in setting the child development agenda. In particular, I was keen to learn how its staff and systems function, and how decisions and policies are determined within the UK government’s broader priorities. The timing of the placement was also very relevant to my choice. DFID’s Education Research Team is currently developing a new £20 million programme to research the implementation of multi-sectoral early childhood initiatives. Such programme aligns with my PhD research to date (which combines international education and child psychology) and my wider work within the Faculty of Education to bridge these two areas for more holistic support for children in low-income contexts.

The aim of the fellowship project was to support the design and preparation of a new DFID programme to research ‘what works’ in the effective implementation of early childhood interventions. Specifically, I was responsible for scoping the potential countries (12) to appraise their suitability to participate in the programme, which involved desk-based research to review relevant documents and liaise with DFID advisers and other stakeholders overseas to understand and evaluate their existing early childhood activities. In addition to the scoping, I supported an early market engagement event with prospective bidders, reviewed and commented on programme documents including the Business Case, Terms of Reference and concept notes, and participated in meetings with the Medical Research Council, UNICEF and Save the Children. I further prepared a short summary of the main instruments for measuring young children’s early development, as well as an outline on how to address gender issues in educational research.

The fellowship met these aims and surpassed them. In particular, I found myself in a leading role concerning DFID’s work around the relationship between education and climate change. Specifically, I was responsible for preparing a strategic overview and high-level statements on how DFID could increase research and programming to strengthen the resilience of education systems in the face of climate change, as well as work through education to mitigate its causes. This involved working closely with DFID’s Education Head of Profession and a Senior Education Adviser to develop plans for a cross-cadre training course to identify and maximise synergies between education and other DFID sectors (such as climate and environment, infrastructure and livelihoods). Beyond the ECD and climate change work, I drafted the key note speech for DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser at a Cambridge conference on play in low-income settings and organised a visit from Hong Kong Fellows at the Blavatnik School of Government which involved coordinating the logistics, hosting the delegates and preparing the meeting briefing.

The main value added through the fellowship relates to my increased understanding of ECD, knowledge around education and climate change, and the new professional relationships and connections I’ve been able to foster. Whereas my research to date has focused on education and drawn on various aspects of child psychology, the placement encouraged me to understand wider aspects of children’s wellbeing and growth, not least those set out in the Nurturing Care Framework. Indeed, my line manager throughout the fellowship was a health adviser who regularly prompted me to think across sectors to reflect on the importance of children’s basic health and nutrition as other foundations for their cognitive development. The placement also provided an excellent opportunity to meet with and get to know DFID advisers and specialists from multiple other organisations. I hope that these relationships will prove valuable in the coming months as I approach the end of my PhD and explore post-doctoral positions.

Having worked for many years before starting the PhD, I was familiar with professional contexts and comfortable collaborating with different colleagues. Nevertheless, the placement gave me an opportunity to build skills at the strategic level of decision-making and around the policy application of research.   I was also able to enhance my teamwork, presentation and leadership competencies, and to benefit from numerous professional development sessions, within DFID and externally. These included lunchtime talks on social mobility, women’s economic empowerment and the effects of poverty on people’s cognitive load. The start of the placement also coincided with a team away-day which enabled me to gain a deeper understanding of how the Education Research Team operates and fits within the department structures. Outside of DFID, I participated in a 3-day Global Challenges Research Fund symposium on the importance of the first 2,000 days of a child’s life, as well as a British Academy event to share the findings of various ECD studies.

Within my first few days at DFID I was already thinking about how better I might frame my PhD research to maximise its relevance, application and impact. In light of the climate change work in particular, I now talk about my research in terms of skills for adaptability and learners’ competencies to respond to the changing world with creative solutions. Beyond the PhD, I hope that the fellowship has strengthened my CV with valuable skills and additional practical experience for when I apply for post-doctoral positions. I would certainly be keen to work at DFID again, within the Education Research Team or another child-related division, but have also met with passionate representatives from diverse organisations doing important work in ECD and international education. Going forward, I hope that these connections will translate into employment or research opportunities as I complete the PhD and progress and build my career in the sector.

I think the placement with DFID has been hugely beneficial for me, and I would encourage other social science students to give serious thought to undertaking an fellowship. For students with prior working experience, I would nevertheless recommend taking time to think carefully about the organisation, the role or project, and how the experience would fit into their longer-term career trajectory. In my case, I had previously worked in international education and had been learning about child psychology during the PhD, so the placement enabled me to further bridge these fields and build skills and knowledge in a space where I had limited prior practical experience. Similarly, I would recommend taking time to liaise with prospective partners to ensure that activities and expectations are aligned from the outset. Finally, I would suggest undertaking an fellowship full-time if possible rather than attempting to juggle it with a PhD, so that participants can immerse themselves fully into the organisation, culture and work, with fewer competing demands on their time.”

Stephen additionally wrote a testimonial to our Director Konstantina Stamati and the wider Cambridge ESRC Doctoral Training Centre team. We feel proud to have helped enable his placement with DFID and been a part of his achievement. We hope you will be next to take a Cambridge Grand Challenge!

I just wanted to let you know that the Student Registry has recently confirmed my PhD – and to thank you for all your support over the past 4.5 years. In addition to the generous funding from the ESRC, which enabled me to conduct my fieldwork in Rwanda and present at numerous conferences, I’ve really appreciated being part of the ESRC community and learning about so many other aspects of social science research. I’m also hugely grateful to you all personally for the regular guidance and encouragement, training sessions and teatime catch-ups. Beyond the PhD study, I also found it immensely valuable to conduct the placement at DFID. Although of course DFID has now merged with the Foreign Commonwealth Office, I’ve been keeping in regular contact with the colleagues I met there. Many thanks Konstantina for facilitating the placement and to the DTP for funding the opportunity. I want to convey my sincere and deep thanks to you and the DTP – it really wouldn’t have been possible without you.”

Stephen Bayley – 26 February 2021

Stephen Bayley’s fellowship with Department for International Development (DFID) took place between May and September 2019.

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