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Over the past decade, education has been increasingly discussed as a development goal in its own right, but also a major way of attaining other development objectives. And all this has happened for good reason. A country that attaches importance to quality education for all its citizens is in a much better position to reduce poverty, encourage economic growth, minimize child and maternal mortality and achieve social inclusion. Two recent consultations highlight the importance of education and learning. Our online hub for resources and other developments on education after 2015 collects proposals from around the globe.

The latest draft Executive Summary for the United Nations World We Want Post-2015 Global Consultation on Education positions education as both a human right and the foundation for development. The summary, which is open for comments, calls for new objectives to focus on both access and quality of learning. The focus on quality is welcome: as we found in the 2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report, education systems must address the fact that 250 million young people – including many who are in school – lack basic literacy and numeracy. The World We Want summary identifies the crucial role that teachers play in providing quality education, which will be a major topic in our upcoming 2013/2014 EFA Global Monitoring Report, on teaching and learning for development

The draft Executive Summary does an excellent job of framing the urgent need for equitable education. However, ultimately a clearer goal will need to be defined to ensure that progress toward quality Education for All is clear and measurable. The Executive Summary uses the proposed goal from the expert meeting in Dakar several months ago, “Equitable quality lifelong education and learning for all”, as its proposed overarching education goal. As I mentioned in an earlier post after the Dakar meeting, the terms “lifelong education” is open to different interpretations, and thus lacks the clarity necessary for the international community to adopt and measure progress toward this goal. We must ensure that post-2015 education goals are clearly and simply stated, measurable and have equity at their heart.

A draft report by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network also proposes a framework for post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that includes goals for education, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability. Their proposed goal on education is to “Ensure effective learning for all children and youth for life and livelihood” with proposed targets on access to early childhood development programs, quality primary and secondary education focused on learning, and youth unemployment. It is encouraging to see that the proposed SDGs also recognize the importance of learning in addition to access.

It is promising that education is included as an essential component of the sustainable development framework, as education supports so many other sustainable development goals, including gender equality, social inclusion and environmental sustainability. The final report could go even further by defining the links among sustainable development goals, and specifically the role that education plays in supporting other goals. Here are just a few examples:

  • Education supports action toward climate change: A survey of OECD countries found that students with higher science knowledge expressed more sense of responsibility for the environment than those with lower scores in science.
  • Education reduces poverty and hunger: One extra year of schooling increases an individual’s earnings by up to 10%.
  • Education supports child health: A child born to a mother who can read is 50% more likely to survive past age 5.

It is good news that both the World We Want consultation goals and the Sustainable Development Goals emphasize the importance of equitable access and learning. However, further steps must be taken to ensure that final post-2015 education goals are clear and measurable.

In addition, as the recent high-level panel in Bali noted, there is a need to merge the two agendas focused on sustainable development and poverty eradication. Both agendas are mutually beneficial, and both are underpinned by education.

National finance

In the majority of countries with data, national spending on education has increased since Dakar. In some countries, increased spending has been associated with substantial progress on the EFA goals. However, the share of national income devoted to education decreased in 40 of the 105 countries with data between 1999 and 2006.

Low-income countries are still spending significantly less on education than are other countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, eleven out of the twenty-one low-income countries with data spend less than 4% of their GNP. In South Asia, several high-population countries continue to spend under or only just over 3% of their GNP on education. This appears to reflect low political commitment to education.

Global wealth inequalities are mirrored by inequalities in education spending. In 2004, North America and Western Europe alone accounted for 55% of the world’s spending on education but only 10% of the population aged 5 to 25. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 15% of 5- to 25–year-olds but just 2% of global spending. South and West Asia represents over one-quarter of the population and just 7% of spending.

Universal primary education

Fix ambitious long-term goals supported by realistic planning and sufficient medium- to long-term budgetary allocations to ensure progress in access, participation and completion in primary education.

Support equity for girls, disadvantaged groups and underserved regions by setting clear targets for reducing disparities, backed by practical strategies for achieving more equitable outcomes.

Raise quality while expanding access by focusing on smooth progression though school and better learning outcomes, increasing textbook supply and quality, strengthening teacher training and support, and ensuring that class sizes are conducive to learning.

Education quality

  • Strengthen policy commitments to quality education and create effective learning environments for all students, including adequate facilities, well-trained teachers, relevant curricula and clearly identified learning outcomes. A focus on teachers and learning should be at the heart of this commitment.
  • Ensure that all children attending primary school for at least four to five years acquire the basic literacy and numeracy skills that they need to develop their potential.
  • Develop the capacity to measure, monitor and assess education quality, in areas that affect learning conditions (infrastructure, textbooks, class sizes), processes (language, instructional time) and outcomes.
  • Develop the capacity to measure, monitor and assess education quality, in areas that affect learning conditions (infrastructure, textbooks, class sizes), processes (language, instructional time) and outcomes.
  • Revise existing policies and regulations to ensure that children have sufficient instructional time and that all schools minimize the gap between intended and actual instructional time.
  • Participate in comparative regional and international learning assessments and translate lessons learned into national policy, and develop national assessments that best reflect each country’s particular needs and goals

Education for all: human right and catalyst for development

It costs nothing to set ambitious goals in education. However, achieving those goals requires financial resources, along with policies that maximize efficiency and equity in the management of those resources. While many of the issues appear technical, financial gover-nance has a critical bearing on prospects for achieving EFA.

Countries vary enormously in their capacity to finance education. Increased public spending is not guaranteed to improve access, equity or learning outcomes. But chronic and sustained underfinancing is a sure route to limited, poor-quality provision.

Most countries have increased the share of national income allocated to education since 1999. In some cases, such as those of Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Senegal, the share has climbed sharply. In others, as in India and Pakistan, it has stagnated at a relatively low 3% of gross national product or less. While cross-regional comparisons have to be treated with caution, spending patterns in South and West Asia would appear to indicate a limited public spending
commitment to education.

Global wealth inequalities are mirrored by inequalities in education spending. In 2006, per-student expenditure for primary school (expressed in constant dollars) ranged from less than US$300 in much of sub-Saharan Africa to over US$5,000 in most developed countries.

As a region sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 15% of 5- to 25-year-olds but just 2% of global spending on their education. South and West Asia represent over one-quarter of the population and 7% of spending.

As in any area of public financing, efficiency is an important determinant of outcomes. Technical efficiency provides a crude indicator of the cost associated with turning finance into quantitative and qualitative outcomes. In many countries, corruption is a major source of both inefficiency and inequity – the former because it means more public money provides fewer inputs and the latter because the costs of corruption invariably fall most heavily on the poor.

Public spending on education has the potential to redress inequalities but often reinforces them instead. Wealthier regions and advantaged groups often attract more financing than poorer regions and disadvantaged groups. Public spending is often not pro-poor.

Governments have developed various approaches aimed at strengthening equity, including school grants and formula funding linked to need – with mixed outcomes.

Financial decentralization has important implications for equity. There is nothing intrinsically equitable or inequitable about reforms in this area: outcomes depend on the rules governing issues such as revenue raising and resource transfer. One obvious danger is that, in the absence of redistributive transfers from richer to poorer areas, decentralization will widen financing gaps in education, with damaging consequences for equity. Another is that subnational governments will seek to mobilize revenue through charges on local services, including education.

Evidence from many countries highlights the risks associated with financial decentralization. In China, Indonesia and the Philippines, decentralization appears to have exacerbated inequalities. In Nigeria, financial decentralization has consolidated large disparities in education financing, often to the detriment of the states facing the most serious problems. However, countries including South Africa, Uganda and Viet Nam have developed models aimed at greater equity, with rules on financial decentralization geared towards the attainment of national goals in education and other areas.


Schools have a major role in providing top-quality education and ensuring a better future for young children. Since their role is so pivotal, they are also at the centre of debates on education governance in which govern-ments, parents, communities and private providers are equally responsible for managing and financing schools.

Many countries which have poor education systems and inappropriate academic facilities invariably face institutional problems. The Dakar Framework does not provide a road map for resolving these problems. But it does call on governments to ‘develop responsive, participatory and accountable systems of educational governance and management’. Translating these widely shared objectives into practical

strategies that tackle institutional weaknesses, expand access, raise quality and strengthen equity is far from straightforward.

The Report focuses on three broad reform currents in school governance. School-based management, the first current, aspires to anchor education in the social fabric of communities. Transferring authority to front-line providers is presented as a vehicle for increasing

parental influence in decisions affecting children’s education – and for ensuring that schools reflect local priorities and values.

The second reform current focuses on choice and competition. Expanding parental choice in the selection of schools is widely viewed as a key to driving up standards, with competition creating powerful incentives for improved performance. In some countries, public- private partnerships are seen as a route to enlarged choice. Governments are using vouchers and other

instruments to facilitate transfers from public to private providers, or contracting out the management of government schools to private providers.

The locus for the third thematic area is outside the public education system. Low-fee private schools have spread rapidly in many countries. Some commentators see these schools as a vehicle for improving access and quality for poor households.

Proponents of all three approaches claim various benefits from governance reform. These range from gains in efficiency to increases in participation, accountability and equity. There is a widely shared underlying assump-tion that devolution of authority, competition and the growth of low-fee private schools will strengthen the voices of the poor and increase their choices. Are the claims and assumptions backed by evidence?

There are no simple answers to that question. In some cases, school-based management reforms have enhanced learning achievements and strengthened equity. The EDUCO schools in El Salvador are an example. That said, nevertheless, there is limited evidence either of systematic benefits in learning outcomes or of changes in teaching practices. Effects on ‘voice’ are also

vague. More localized decision-making may bring authority closer to parents and communities, but it does not follow that this will overcome wider disadvantages.

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