250 million ‘not learning’: An education crisis?

There are around 650 million children of primary school age in the world. Of these, 120 million fail to make it to the fourth year of schooling, and a further 130 million are in school but “failing to learn the basics”.  That’s 250 million not learning. Policy makers in education ministries and donors alike have always known that educational quality matters – but the scale of the problem is surely more daunting than any imagined.

Every year UNESCO publishes an update on the progress made in educating the world’s children – the Global Monitoring Report.  There was a time when this was a moment of quiet satisfaction: rapid increases in the number of children getting to go to a school funded in part by increases in aid. But this year’s report – published in Paris today – makes for less fun reading.

Progress on the core MDG goal – universal primary education – is “stalling”.  Some countries appear, on UNESCO’s stats at least, to be heading backwards.  In Nigeria over three million more children aren’t in school today compared with 2004.  And the in-school-but-being-failed generation seems to be getting larger.  The Brookings Institute argued that 200 million pupils were failing to learn even the basics.

If UNESCO’s new statistics didn’t sound like enough of a challenge, education ministries (and budgets) look set to be pulled in two opposite directions: on the one hand responding to the ‘learning crisis’ implies a focus on young children and on the other hand youth bulges require an expanded secondary and post-secondary learning and formation opportunities.

There seems a good chance that the ‘learning crisis’ will lead many NGOs, big donors and policy thinkers to redouble their focus on basic education.  The wealth of evidence on the foundational importance of early brain development and children being ready to learn when they start school could even lead to a serious refocus on pre-school provision. There is a tidy and robust logic behind this broad strategy: children must be ready to learn when they start school and they must learn the basics early in order to then access a wider and fulfilling curriculum later.  What is more, achieving greater equity and fairness, with no group left behind, will be that much easier with early intervention.

But simultaneously in a post-Arab spring world, with many countries experiencing large youth bulges and already high levels of youth unemployment, no government can ignore upper secondary and tertiary education.  Indeed it becomes doubly hard as larger and larger groups of pupils are making it past primary school and demanding a secondary education.  It is instructive that today’s Global Monitoring Report includes an interesting and thoughtful focus on ‘Youth and Skills’. Many other organisations including Save the Children are increasing their focus on these knotty questions.  You don’t have to have a crystal ball to predict that that young people will increasingly demand skills and jobs, and make their views heard more loudly.

Reconciling these two pressures represents a gargantuan task.  For the governments concerned immensely difficult judgements about limited budgets will be required – indeed these decisions must already be swamping many an education official’s in-tray.  In emerging nations and middle income countries with more robust and growing tax bases the challenge is less acute.  Just like much of the western world and the Asian Tigers in the 1970s and 1980s, they have the option of using growing prosperity to fund simultaneously an improved quality of basic education and the expansion of secondary and tertiary opportunities.

But it is low- countries and middle-income countries with weak governance and ineffective tax systems where the trade-offs are most acute.  They can look to East Asia and try and learn some lessons – continue to focus on achieving universal primary education, enforce minimum quality standards and use cost-sharing for tertiary education. But in many ways they are in unchartered waters: huge unavoidable demand for post-basic education, an unarguable logic behind investing early to tackle a learning crisis, all with economies that continue to lag far behind.

Increasing domestic sources of revenue and not shying away from making changes to school systems – from improving school accountability to improved support for teachers – will be vital parts of the answer.  But if ever there was a case for aid then this was it.  In many countries over a third of their education budgets already come from aid; a vital resource to help reconcile the otherwise irreconcilable.  The problem is that here too the stats are worrying: between 2002 and 2009 official aid allocated to education almost doubled, but in 2010, this trend may have begun to reverse. The OECD have tracked the education share stagnating, and with many countries’ aid budgets under threat, overall contractions look likely.

So as the great and good of the education and development world digest the welter of statistics in today’s Global Monitoring Report it would be hard not to recognise the scale of the challenge. Winning the case for aid will be vital for many millions of pupils and essential for supporting governments struggling to juggle the pressures on their education budgets.

And beyond this, doing some of the hard thinking about just how nations’ school systems make the ‘quality leap’,  improving opportunity for all children –even with limited funding and while expanding post-basic education—should be one of the most pressing questions in development thinking today.