Safe Learning: improving girls' literacy and wellbeing in the Global South

  • 24 January 2024
  • Professor Dympna Devine & Dr Seaneen Sloan
  • Academic, Cultural, Educational, Health, Social


Professor Devine led a team to evaluate an education intervention by Concern Worldwide which supports children’s literacy, wellbeing and gender equality in rural Sierra Leone. The study fills a gap in research on the impact of early school interventions on gender equality in the Global South. The team found significant impacts on literacy, as well as on girls’ wellbeing and self-esteem. The research was endorsed by the Ministry of Education in Sierra Leone, and has informed Concern's gender transformative work in Sierra Leone, DRC, Somalia, Niger, Syria, Chad and Ethiopia. This means that thousands of children and their communities will benefit from interventions that are better able to support literacy and wellbeing.

Research description

Among the world’s poorest countries, Sierra Leone is ranked considerably below the average Human Development Index for sub-Saharan Africa. Gender inequality is pervasive in the country, and rural children, especially girls, are less likely to develop functional literacy and complete their schooling. Therefore, in recent years, primary education has become a significant focus of national development.

This research, led by Professor Devine, involved evaluating the impact of an education intervention by Concern Worldwide – The Safe Learning Model (SLM) – in one of Sierra Leone’s poorest regions. The SLM brings together transformative gender interventions within an education programme, and is based on the assumption that children’s educational progress will be enhanced when they live in communities that are underpinned by support for gender equality, particularly in relation to school-related gender based violence (SRGBV), and children’s wellbeing.

In the pilot year (2017), the UCD team developed a culturally sensitive measure of children’s wellbeing. This was followed by a three year (2018-2021) mixed-methods randomised controlled trial of the intervention. The trial consisted of three levels:

  1. A literacy-only intervention
  2. A literacy intervention plus a school-based SRGBV reduction intervention
  3. Literacy, plus school-based and community-based SRGBV reduction interventions

Villages were randomly assigned to one of these levels, or a control group who received no intervention. The team tracked 3000 children aged 7 years across 100 villages, measuring their literacy and wellbeing annually. They spent extended periods of time in four villages, conducting yearly interviews with 8 boys and 8 girls, their families, peers, teachers and headteachers. A total of 376 interviews were conducted. The team prioritised listening to children’s voices through child-friendly participatory methods.

They also conducted a Covid impact sub study in 2020. This included a telephone survey and interviews with headteachers during the period of school closures, and follow-up interviews and surveys with children, families and school personnel immediately after schools reopened.

Through the research, Professor Devine and the team showed that the SLM intervention improves children’s literacy, in particular identifying significant improvements for girls’ literacy and wellbeing. They also demonstrated how supporting girls’ literacy has a knock-on and significant impact on girls’ self-esteem in a wider context where expectations for girls’ abilities are low — this impact is greater than that of direct interventions on their wellbeing. Finally, the research also identified the key role that caregivers, including older siblings, play in supporting children’s literacy.

UCD Lead Research Team

  • Professor Dympna Devine, Principal Investigator
  • Professor Ciaran Sugrue, Co-PI
  • Assistant Professor Seaneen Sloan, Co-PI [Alternate]
  • Associate Professor Jennifer Symonds, Co-Investigator

UCD Post-doctoral Researchers

  • Giuseppe Bolotta (2017 – 2018)
  • Michelle Kearns (2017 – 2019)
  • Daniel Capistrano (2019 – 2022)
  • Elena Samonova (2019 – 2023)
  • Aimee Smith (2020 – 2024)
  • Ryan Gibbons (2022 – 2023)


  • The team drew on the services of Nestbuilders International to support the collection of data across the 100 villages, with the UCD team working alongside Sierra Leonian fieldworkers.
  • In-field support was also provided by Sierra Leonean staff from Concern Worldwide.

Safe Learning Advisory Board

  • Professor Wendy Luttrell, CUNY, USA
  • Professor Anne Trine Kjorholt, NTNU, Norway
  • Professor Mairead Dunne, Sussex (Visiting Scholar)
  • Chris Pain, Amy Folan, Austin Kennan: Concern Worldwide


  • The Safe Learning Study was funded by a grant from Concern Worldwide. A pilot phase was conducted in 2017-2018 to assess the feasibility of the study; the trial was conducted from 2018-2021, and the final write up phase from 2021-2022. Ethical approval was sought and granted for both the pilot and main trial phases.

Research impact

The team’s research identified the most effective elements of the Safe Learning Model, and what can be improved to gain the best outcome for all children, but especially girls, in poor rural communities in the Global South.

Improving literacy and wellbeing interventions in the Global South

As a direct result of the UCD research, Concern Worldwide has refined the SLM to simplify and strengthen teacher support for literacy. This is now being implemented by Concern in their Development and Emergency education work in Syria, DRC, Somalia, Niger, Chad and Ethiopia, with future work planned in Liberia, South Sudan, and Afghanistan.  The evidence has been shared with other organisations and is informing the development of programming beyond Concern. including Save the Children, Plan, Girls Education Challenge, UNICEF, and many others.

This means that thousands of children and their communities will benefit from interventions that are better able to support literacy and wellbeing. The intervention is now reaching approximately 20,000 children and families in Somalia, 90,000 in Niger, 3,500 in Chad and 23,000 in Ethiopia.

The team’s evidence about the importance of caregivers, especially older siblings, in supporting children’s literacy is now being used by Concern to further develop caregiver engagement and learning across emergency settings. It is also being drawn upon as evidence to support their work with the Kenyan Institute for Curriculum Development as part of their family literacy support initiatives.

In addition, evidence from the Covid impact sub study fed into Concern’s emergency responses on the ground. This included setting up learning groups and additional support to target attendance once schools re-opened.

This research provided rigorous evidence to inform the quality of our programming and that of the broader Education sector. The findings provide us with a strong evidence base to address challenges of prioritisation and implementation in under-resourced contexts.
— Chris Pain, Head of Development, Concern

Amplifying the voices of hard-to-reach communities

This research has amplified the voices of hard-to-reach communities, and has communicated the insights and experiences of these communities through methods that resonate with stakeholders who have power to effect change.

For example, members of the team have shared their findings with key stakeholders in Sierra Leone through three “learning events” (held in March 2020, Oct 2022 and November 2022), attended by government officials, national education leaders, local representatives from the study communities, and development partners, including International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, Street Child and Oxfam.

The first learning event, in Freetown, was attended by the Minister for Education and the Irish Ambassador. This influenced the development of national policies, including the Comprehensive School Safety and Radical Inclusion Policies. The successful engagement with policy leaders in Sierra Leone about the research findings is benefiting future programming, policy decisions and advocacy plans.

The study has also documented the strong support for education in these rural communities and the key role of children in families’ livelihood strategies, including through their progress in school.

Informing how others assess wellbeing and literacy

The UCD team developed a culturally sensitive measure of wellbeing by working directly with local communities in the pilot year. Concern have now digitised the tool and added it to their standard indicator library, used by Concern staff in 28 countries. The way in which the team used mixed and child-participatory methods in their research is changing how Concern explores sensitive topics, including children’s experience of violence and gender equality. 

This study contributed to the evidence base for school-based interventions in developing countries, through a rigorous experimental design combined with in-depth qualitative data.  It is the first large-scale study to combine an evaluation of the intersection of interventions on literacy, well-being and School-Related Gender-Based Violence. To date, the team has published 10 peer-reviewed papers, with a further 5 in train, and 10 conference presentations.

“This research provided rigorous evidence to inform the quality of our programming and that of the broader Education sector. It provided much-needed evidence on implementing complex programmes addressing causes of extreme poverty, applicable across Concern’s wider portfolio. The tools and approaches including CAPSAW and PhotoVoice have strengthened how we collect data on a range of themes including gender and protection. The findings provide us with a strong evidence base to address challenges of prioritisation and implementation in under-resourced contexts.”
Chris Pain, Head of Development, Concern

“As one of the first large-scale studies examining the relationship between literacy and wellbeing, the research has filled a gap in global evidence on what works to address SRGBV. Partners, donors, UN agencies, academics and governments have shown particular interest in the findings due to the comprehensive longitudinal design and mixed-methods approach.”
Amy Folan, Senior Education Advisor, Concern

Project links

Selected academic outputs

Capistrano, D, et al. (2021). Assessing experiences with violence and peace in primary schools in Sierra Leone. Journal Of Aggression, Conflict And Peace Research, 14(3), 231-243. DOI:

Devine, D., et al. (2021). Becoming ‘brilliant’: Generationing education and development in rural Sierra Leone. Childhood, 28(2), 262–278. DOI:

Kennan, A., et al. (2021). Safe Learning Model; integrating transformative gender approaches to strengthen inclusive pedagogies and practice. In Transforming Education Service Delivery Through Evidence-Informed Policy and Practice. MBBSE, Sierra Leone URL:

Samonova, E., Devine, D., Sugrue, C., Capistrano, D., S. Sloan, J. Symonds, (2021). ‘An empty bag cannot stand upright’: The nature of schooling costs in Sierra Leone, International Journal of Educational Development, 87, DOI:

Sugrue, C., Samonova, E., Capistrano, D. Devine, D. et al. (2022) Anatomy of an educational change: The safe learning model, Sierra Leone. Journal of Educational Change. DOI:

Symonds, J.E., Sloan, S., Kearns, M. Devine, D et al. (2022) Developing a Social Evolutionary Measure of Child and Adolescent Hedonic and Eudaimonic Wellbeing in Rural Sierra Leone Journal of Happiness Studies 23, 1433–1467 (2022). DOI:

Samonova, E., Devine, D., & Luttrell, W. (2022). Under the Mango Tree: Photovoice With Primary School Children in Rural Sierra Leone. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 21. DOI:

Samonova, E., et al. (2022) Power, agency and children’s time use in rural Sierra Leone, Children's Geographies, 20:6, 889-902, DOI:

Devine, D., et al. (2023) Gendering childhood(s) and engagement with schooling in rural Sierra Leone, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 53:1, 19-36, DOI:

Samonova, E., et al. (2023). Picturing safety and danger: Children's perspectives in rural Sierra Leone. Children & Society, 37, 906– 924. DOI: