Education stands for the hopes and dreams of many children around the world. It paves the way towards more productive, healthier, sustainable and resilient societies in which children can reach their full potential. However, new data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) confirm that the situation of out-of-school children has stalled without significant improvement for the last ten years. In 2018, 1 in 6 or more than 258 million children, adolescents and youth were denied the right to education. What is particularly alarming is that the children who miss out continue to be the most vulnerable; they tend to be the poorest, those who face entrenched discrimination and, very often, those caught up in conflict. Apparently we have to provide tailor-made support to target specific groups of out-of-school children.
These latest figures are part of the annual UIS education data release, which includes 33 of the 43 global and thematic SDG 4 indicators. The UIS has updated its global education database for the school year ending in 2018. It captures historical time series, regional averages and indicators on key policy issues related to school access, participation and completion by education level, learning outcomes, equity, teachers and education financing.
What the New Data Tell?
In 2018, 258.4 million (17 per cent) children, adolescents and youth were out of school. No doubt this may look like a small improvement at first glance, with the number seeming to drop by 3.4 million from 261.8 million in 2017. But the reduction reflects a methodological change in the way indicators are calculated.
In November 2018, the Technical Cooperation Group (TCG) approved a change in the calculation method for SDG indicator 4.1.5 that captures the out-of-school rate for children of primary, lower secondary and upper secondary school age. Children of primary school age who are still enrolled in pre-primary education are now considered to be ‘in school’.
The new data also highlight the gap between the world’s richest and poorest countries. In low-income countries, 19 per cent of primary-school-age children (roughly 6 to 11 years old) are not in school compared to just 2 per cent in high-income countries. The gaps grow even wider for older children and youth. Nearly 61 per cent of all youth between the age of 15 and 17 are out of school in low-income countries compared to just 8 per cent in high-income countries.
Girls Are the First to be Excluded
It is important to keep in mind that not all out-of-school children are permanently excluded from education. Some have attended school in the past but dropped out, others may start school in the future, while a third group is unlikely to ever set foot in a classroom. This third group is the cause of greatest concern. Globally, 20 per cent or 12 million out-of-school children of primary age have never attended school and will probably never start. Girls continue to face the greatest barriers. According to UIS data, 9 million girls of primary school age will never set foot in a classroom compared to about 3 million boys. Across sub-Saharan Africa, 4 million girls will never attend school compared to 2 million boys. In total, 32 million primary school aged children are out of school across the region, according to UIS estimates. 46 per cent of these children will start at a later age, but one-fifth will remain entirely excluded.
Equity in Education
The fact that especially girls suffer from limited access to education is only one dimension of a much broader equity challenge. Access to education remains highly uneven in many countries of all income levels. Significant disparities exist in relation to wealth, location, sex and education investment. However, equity lies at the heart of the entire SDG agenda and failing to provide a decent education to all children – no matter where they live or the conditions they face - poses a clear threat to the achievement of SDG 4. Given that education is the foundation for every aspect of human progress, the damage goes even much further. It undermines our chances of reaching every other SDG, from poverty reduction to environmental sustainability.
Without a shift from ‘business as usual’, the world will miss its goal of a quality education for all by 2030 - the deadline for SDG 4. Based on current trends, one in every six children will still be out of primary and secondary school in 2030 and only six in every ten young people will complete secondary education, according to UIS and Global Education Monitoring Report projections. While the new data from the UIS confirm the urgent need to expand access to education, this cannot come at the expense of education quality and better learning. This is why countries have adopted SDG indicator 4.1.1, which tracks the proportion of children who are achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. Yet if current trends continue, learning rates are expected to stagnate in middle-income countries and drop in Francophone African countries by 2030 mainly due to demographic pressure.
It is therefore critical to support education systems to further promote and realize their potential as a tool for transforming societies and economies. We must ensure that children can attend schools without direct or indirect costs and with a focus on inclusion and quality of education. Targeted efforts are needed to overcome specific barriers that keep the most vulnerable and marginalized children out of school. Education expenditure needs to become equity-focused to direct resources to actual needs and to enable a shift towards greater equity in education. In addition, we must harness the potential of technology to help educate every child, everywhere.
The challenges to education are not inevitable and can be overcome through a combination of intensive action and greater funding. Establishing new public and private partnerships, mobilizing resources, strengthening national Education Management Information Systems, exchanging expertise and scalable action are required to live up to the promise. We now need real commitment from every single partner, backed by resources, to get the job done.
How to Improve Education Quality?
In order to improve learning outcomes, a range of interventions is necessary to support developing countries in ensuring strong systems to monitor what their students are learning. Without data on whether and how students are learning, it is impossible to ensure quality education. With the drive for education on quality front. the issue of learning assessment is an increasing priority for developing countries. Despite a proliferation of assessments in many countries, including national examinations, sample-based assessments and the everyday classroom assessment practices deployed by teachers, developing countries face challenges in ensuring that assessment data effectively informs policy and practice.
No doubt some countries met the threshold in 2018; challenges persist in most of the countries which inter alia include the variable quality of assessment tools and lack of assessment expertise within the systems, the lack of alignment across various types of assessments and their coherence with the broader education system. In addition, assessments often omit the most marginalized children, such as those with disabilities or who are not in school. There is also a general culture of underuse of learning assessment data.
A range of global public goods exist to support countries to build and reinforce their learning assessment systems such as large-scale assessments and the tools and studies, data, networks and knowledge sharing opportunities they generate. Capacity development initiatives are also available, with tools and publications, system capacity frameworks, networks and knowledge sharing platforms. Nonetheless, gaps remain for which additional support is needed such as in building a culture of evaluation and guidance in supporting teachers to conduct classroom-based assessments and in reforming examination systems.
Various areas of potential investments for improving teaching and learning are discussed below:
1. Improving Teacher and Teaching Data and Its Use
Different types of qualitative and quantitative data on teachers are provided by a range of global and national institutions. Investments could support collating and aggregating the data provided by different organizations for each of the partner countries and explores demand for additional country-level data for understanding teacher and teaching quality issues.
Given that one of the biggest challenges is ensuring that learning assessment data are used, we need more knowledge and exchange around this issue, emphasizing learning from good practices. There may also be scope to think about new ways to support the dissemination, communication and visualization of assessment data or to consider pilots that can support a test-intervene-retest model.
2. Supporting Teacher Recruitment, Selection and Retention
There are education systems where recruitment and selection practices could be strengthened to increase accountability and transparency and improve the quality of teachers recruited. Some countries have designed and implemented interventions that result in merit-based selection of teachers, which could be evaluated to identify and share practices that attract and retain the teachers who teach most effectively. There is also potential to develop innovative solutions to use effective leaders and teachers differently and more effectively in contexts where there is high-teacher shortage (including in fragile and conflict-affected areas).
Good teachers and effective teaching inspired by the best leadership are the heart of the learning process and the single most important school-based factor for improving learning and equity in education outcomes. This is why teaching and learning is a priority area. For all children to enroll and learn effectively in schools, it is essential to recruit enough effective teachers; provide them with the right professional learning before and after starting their careers; deploy the best teachers where they are needed the most; manage their performance to build professionalism and continuous improvement; and incentivize the best to remain in the classroom teaching. This sounds straightforward but the challenge is huge.
UNESCO estimates that nearly 70 million additional quality teachers need to be recruited to meet the SDGs for quality education. However, the poorest countries are struggling to recruit enough quality teachers. No doubt teacher training has been strengthened in many countries, but concerns remain with its quality and the variation in what constitutes a trained teacher. Teacher allocation is inequitable and inefficient in most of the countries. In addition, the best teachers are not where they are needed the most; helping marginalized students match the learning outcomes of their peers. The neediest populations remain underserved, and many countries struggle to attract enough effective teachers to rural areas. More focused efforts are needed in this area.
3. Supporting Teacher Accountability, Incentives and Rewards
Sharing of practices for expanding professionalism and motivating teachers at scale along with a review of current evidence could be supported. Additionally, there is potential to identify or pilot innovative solutions to address issues related to accountability, incentives and rewards.
4. Supporting Teacher Preparation and Professional Learning
Low levels of subject-specific knowledge and effective pedagogy are areas where teachers require support in most partner countries. The evidence for what works at scale to rapidly improve subject knowledge and how to support teachers effectively to improve classroom practice is growing. The challenge is now how to implement effective models of teacher professional learning at scale and monitor the impact they have on learning.
5. Supporting Enabling School and System Factors for Effective Teaching
School-based factors, including culture and leadership, are key elements in facilitating effective teaching. In low resource contexts some partner countries have managed to work on these factors and others could benefit from the transfer of knowledge and practices that work. With regards to teacher development, school-based solutions have been tried in different contexts, with room for more innovation. This would be an important area of study, especially for investing in sustainable models for teacher development.
6. Supporting Finance, Planning and Deployment
Investment could help countries to have designed and implemented interventions to address technical and political barriers. With deployment of teachers in areas where they are needed the most remaining a persistent challenge, there is a need to explore solutions and innovations that sustainably attract, incentivize and retain the best teachers to the locations and grades where they are needed the most.
7. Supporting learning assessment systems for the most marginalized
Learning assessment systems are often absent or nascent in marginalized settings, such as those found in countries affected by fragility and conflict, while they are also inadequate in regard to marginalized learners, such as those with disabilities or out of school. Innovation could also be harnessed to produce solutions to the challenge of collecting learning data for marginalized populations or in crisis settings.
8. Support to national learning assessment institutions
Though countries have different institutional arrangements for learning assessments, capacity building and peer learning opportunities to support, the development of national assessment frameworks are needed. Supporting national learning assessment institutions may also include the development or expansion of diagnostic tools or review of public examinations reform or initiatives around competency-based assessment. From an innovation angle, this support may explore the development of assessments that can capture a range of skills and competencies, beyond literacy and numeracy.
Recognizing that the learning assessment ecosystem involves actors from school to central level, capacity building is needed for all these actors, including for teachers to effectively conduct classroom-based assessment. Further evidence is also needed on good practices in classroom-based assessment, as well as an understanding of how to build expertise in learning assessment in a cost-efficient and sustainable manner.