Education Rising: Reflections on the Learning for All Ministerial Meetings

Last week was a big one for global education. For the first time in history, education ministers and finance ministers featured together on the agenda of the annual World Bank-IMF Spring Meetings. The World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown co-hosted the Learning for All Ministerial, a series of high-level meetings to discuss specific challenges and concrete steps to accelerate progress toward ensuring that all children go to school and learn. Finance and education ministers from eight countries— Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen— that are collectively home to nearly half of the out-of-school population met together with international development partners, and civil society and private sector leaders.

A series of country papers that were prepared in consultation with a range of stakeholders and coordinated by the Center for Universal Education at Brookings tracked the progress (and in some cases regress) toward reaching the education goals. These papers also proposed specific actions that must be taken in order to meet MDG targets by 2015. In many countries, impressive progress has been made in providing access to education and reducing gender differences in education opportunities. This has occurred even in some of the poorest countries such as Ethiopia, where more than 10 million children have enrolled in primary school over the past decade, more than doubling the enrollment rate. There is cause for celebration and optimism about what can be achieved in the future.

But great challenges still lie ahead. Even in countries with strong performances, progress in school enrollment and gender equity has been highly uneven. Significant and often overlapping disparities exist between regions, fragile and non-fragile areas, rural and urban areas, and socioeconomic groups. Poor children in urban slums in Bangladesh, the North-Kivu and Kasai-Occidental of the DRC, the nomadic regions of Afar and Somali in Ethiopia, or the North Eastern states of Nigeria are much less likely to go to school than children in other areas. Girls account for two out of three out-of-school children in South Sudan.

Hugely encouraging numbers in terms of access also hide a crisis in learning. International as well as national studies of learning across countries show unacceptably low and even declining levels of learning as coverage expands. As a result, this often leads to high dropout rates. In most of the countries present at the meeting, less than two-thirds of children enrolled manage to complete primary school. In Haiti, only half of the children starting in grade 1 complete primary school. The MDGs, with their focus on education access, do not put sufficient attention on education quality and learning outcomes. This must be remedied in the post-2015 development framework.

Overcoming these challenges will require addressing bottlenecks well beyond the sector. Many children are not going to school because of persistent economic and socio-cultural barriers. With an average of two or more children per household, tuition costs in Haiti can consume up to 50 percent of a household’s income. Child labor and early marriage are also limiting education opportunities for a large number of children. Proposals to address these demand-side barriers include scaling up cash transfer programs in Nigeria, removing school fees in the DRC, providing school subsidies in Haiti, and providing girls’ stipends in South Sudan and Yemen. Achieving universal basic education will also require addressing broader issues such as early childhood development (including health and nutrition), the transition to secondary education, and the development of relevant life and job skills.

Critical to progress is the commitment of government and leaders at national and local levels. Many countries have institutionalized the right to free and compulsory primary education and have translated their commitment into sector plans and investment. In countries where state provision fails, non-state actors have stepped in to fill the gaps. Provision of basic services by civil society groups in Bangladesh is vital to educational achievement in the country. A proposal for flexible education provision in Bangladesh’s urban slums, using NGOs, builds on this strength. But discussions also highlighted the need for state capacity to set minimum standards and a regulatory framework for all providers, including the private sector. The Haitian school system is dominated by the non-public sector, which is largely unregulated and mainly financed by school fees that constitute a major expenditure for poor households.

Urgent improvements in what the World Bank president calls the “science of delivery” are needed. All country cases included proposals to strengthen infrastructure, teacher qualifications, and in some cases (e.g. Ethiopia) performance based school grants to improve access and quality. There is a broad recognition that all possible channels of delivery should be considered, including civil society and the private sector, particularly in fragile contexts such as in South Sudan. Also, decentralization can in many circumstances increase local responsiveness to local issues and opportunities. But political will is needed. The ministers of education and finance in Nigeria stressed the need to motivate their state governors to invest in education and proposed organizing a convention with all governors and the president to highlight the education crisis. Critically, accountability needs to be strengthened. This includes ensuring that teachers get paid, depoliticizing teacher hiring and transfers, and measuring education outcomes. It also includes local accountability through parent associations, and publishing amounts of funding and resources made available to local levels. Finally, participants also stressed the need to evaluate and scale up “revolutionary and innovative methods” of delivery, taking advantage of new mobile technologies.

More money is required, particularly as greater effort is focused on reaching marginalized, hard-to-reach groups, and improvements in education quality. Domestic resource allocations to education have increased dramatically in some countries. For example, up to 25 percent of Ethiopia’s budget is spent on education. But, in most other countries, education spending remains much too low at around 10 percent of total spending or even lower, such as in South Sudan at 7 percent, which is well below international standards. Education sector reform will need to go hand in hand with wider finance and tax reform to generate the resources needed. International support also needs to be sustained, expanded and better coordinated. For example in South Sudan, education assistance is delivered by 20 donors overseeing 46 projects of about $2 million.

The meetings last week resulted in a number of concrete commitments, which will be monitored by the Global Partnership for Education. A set of new meetings with other off-track countries (such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Timor Leste and Myanmar) is also planned for the UN General Assembly in September. A number of other education events coinciding with the Ministerial also led to a coalition to prevent child exploitation and an agreement to build a platform for business engagement in education.

The ministerial meeting ended with the premier of “Girls Rising”, an inspiring new documentary about the power of girls’ education. The film reminded all of us that education is a fundamental human right and a blessing that unlocks almost all other development goals.