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By Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly, Head of Education Policy and Advocacy, Save the Children and Chair of the Global Book Alliance

The Global Book Alliance is committed to supporting the creation of at least 50 culturally and linguistically appropriate children’s book titles for each year of literacy development in 500 languages.

A new coalition of governments, international agencies, NGOs and the private sector has launched this week with the aim of closing the children’s book gap.

In school but not learning

Last year, the UNESCO Institute for Statistic published alarming new estimates of the number of children that aren’t achieving the basics in reading and maths.

It showed that 387 million children of primary school age do not achieve minimum proficiency levels in reading. Disturbingly two-thirds of these children, some 262 million, are in school. There is now a broad consensus that this is a tragic waste of both human potential and financial resources.

Having identified the problem, we need to act and implement evidence-based measures that we know will improve learning.

Learning to read without books

Tens of millions of children are expected to learn to read without adequate access to books and print.

There are undoubtedly numerous challenges to reversing the global learning crisis. A critical but neglected one, is the lack quality reading materials in a language that children understand.

For example, in Malawi, there are approximately 2.2 million native speakers of Tumbuka and another 2.2 million speakers of Yao. Yet, there are fewer than 20 reading book titles available in either language, leaving nearly 25 percent of Malawi’s population without the materials necessary to acquire and sustain basic literacy.

The situation is repeated across the world. And the relatively few speakers of minority languages, coupled with the low incomes of the regions where these languages are spoken, means that the market for books in these languages simply will not develop without support.

It is hard to imagine learning to read without access to books but that is in fact what we expect of millions of children around the world. This is despite a robust body of research, which has established that books in languages children use and understand are essential to literacy acquisition.

A new alliance dedicated to support the entire book chain from development to use

Thankfully, recognition of the challenge posed by a lack of books to early literacy is growing. UNESCO, the World Bank, and the International Commission for Financing Global Educational Opportunity have all recently called for the increased provision of books to improve learning.

And building on research and design work begun in 2015 a coalition of donors, multilateral agencies and non-government organisations have established the Global Book Alliance. Inspired by the work of organisations like GAVI, which has improved access to immunisation by transforming the vaccines supply chain, the Global Book Alliance will take a similar approach.

Introducing the Global Book Alliance - YouTube

An effective supply of books requires high-quality title development, access to those titles by publishers and a functioning supply chain to deliver books to their potential readers. These books must be appealing, relevant, in the right language and at the right reading level. And teachers and parents must be able to use books effectively to support learning.

Sustaining a sufficient supply of books will also require spurring a healthy demand for books, including through public purchasing. Rigorous procurement practices and interventions to support effective book use can support the market for books across countries and regions and in turn sustain emerging publishing markets.


The Alliance, unlike previous book projects, will support work across the entire book chain, building supply and demand for books simultaneously and reinforcing each link in the chain until it is strong enough to support itself.

This is an ambitious mission, but experience tells us that the challenge demands nothing less. The research, which informed the design of the Alliance, pointed to the potential of focused action on books to supercharge existing efforts and investments in education in general and reading in particular.

Closing the Children’s Book Gap’, the Alliance’s first strategic plan, which we launched at UNESCO headquarters this week, as part of an event to mark International Mother Language Day, sets out three priorities for our first operating period 2018-2020.

A global digital library

Anyone, anywhere, should have access to quality, local language reading materials. A new Global Digital Library, supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, will house at least 50,000 new titles in 100 languages. The books in the library will be aligned with each year of literacy development for children ages 3-11, prioritizing languages where there are few to no reading materials available. These resources will be open source via web, mobile and for print or translation — and at no cost to the user.

Supporting publishing

Books on a digital platform, however good they are, won’t make it in to the hands of children without additional effort. We recognise that the local publishing industry is key to increasing the volume of locally developed, high-quality titles for local distribution.

Our regional and national publishing collaboratives will support the utilisation of material available in the Global Digital Library as well as the training of writers, illustrators and editors and the development of a dynamic book sector, including book promotion and sales.

Supporting comprehensive action at the national level

The Alliance also aspires to implement country level programmes where these and other measures designed to close the children’s book gap are implemented at scale.

Ensuring that all children have access to high-quality, local language books at the right reading

level, as well as the teaching and support they need to use them to develop and sustain their literacy skills is critical to reversing the crisis in learning.

The Alliance has an exciting opportunity to forge lasting change that will transform the lives of the world’s children and we are hoping that others will join us. Find out how at www.globalbookalliance.org

The founding members of the Global Book Alliance are UNESCO, UNICEF, the Global Partnership for Education, the World Bank, USAID, Norad, DfID, Australian Aid, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa, World Vision and Save the Children.

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The ingenuity, resolve and enthusiasm of young leaders is vital for sustainable development. Over 1000 youth leaders from over 100 countries gathered at the 2018 Winter Youth Assembly at the United Nations on February 12-14. The theme, Innovation and Collaboration for the Sustainable World, invited youth from around the globe to develop creative solutions to shape a better world and help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The global education goal, SDG 4, was front and center of many of the discussions during this assembly. The youth version of the Global Education Monitoring Report was distributed widely to the participants, and they were called on to lend their voices to ensure that governments uphold the right to education for all citizens.

Priya Joshi led a panel discussion on the 2017/8 GEM Report on accountability. She was joined by Munira Khalif, 2017-2018 United States Youth Observer to the United Nations, and Chris Gannon, Vice President of the United States Student Association, who shared their motivations for engaging with education issues. They discussed their perspectives on the important role youth and students can play in holding governments accountable for providing inclusive, equitable quality education for all.

“As the largest youth population in history, there is power in our numbers, our raised voices, and our collective push towards change. We need not wait until tomorrow to tackle the issues of today. We are the change makers we have been waiting for” stated Munira.

Featuring excerpts from the GEM Report’s Right to Education Campaign, the discussion focused on the importance of youth activism and organized student unions to voice collective concerns and also offered delegates the chance to develop their knowledge of social media activism and hone their talents in advocacy and organizing from experienced student activists.

“Education is a human right, and we have a collective responsibility to promote worldwide access to education. Ensuring educational accessibility requires constant vigilance. We must encourage and empower students to lead this fight.” said panelist Chris Gannon as he closed the event.

On the second day, over 50 delegates joined a workshop on gender equality and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Priya highlighted the GEM Report’s gender equality perspective, noting issues with gender parity in education, boys’ disengagement and poverty constraints. She articulated the needs and challenges of gender equality and education in terms of employment and work, political participation and leadership, and health and well-being.

The workshop then broke out into groups, where participants assumed the roles of policy makers, funding agencies and youth representatives to address gender equality challenges. They were asked to highlight priority changes that would help achieve gender equality in society. The groups reported back with some significant, important arguments in support of education’s role for improving gender equality around the world.

“Gender equality can be viewed as a pyramid that has education at its basis and builds on top of that. For instance, mothers who can educate children” remarked youth delegate Caitlan Sussman.  “It is very important to change mindsets in developing and also in developed countries – the idea that men are above women. That change starts with education. The 10 of us in this group were discussing this and found that not a single one of us had received one lecture on gender equality that we are having now. So, we think that we need to include boys and girls. Roll out a universal curriculum to get everyone on the same page on gender equality, early” concluded another.

Another delegate mentioned the responsibility of young people to educate their elders on gender equality. And finally, a delegate highlighted the need to focus on women in positions of importance: “We need to bring them to the communities and schools. So they can say – even though you may not be learning about me in school, I do exist. Once they see that mirror reflected, they will know that the sky is the limit.”

In the closing ceremony, delivered at the UN General Assembly to all youth delegates, Priya highlighted the inspirational engagement of youth in the past two days. She mentioned how all of the evidence had shown that education has the potential to transform individuals and societies, but then noted the challenges in providing education. She noted the fact that aid to basic education is stagnating and argued that the commitments made in 2015 were not translating fast enough to actions. She called on the youth in attendance to share their thoughts and observations on government attempts to uphold the right to education and to join the GEM Report campaign. She also called on the youth, at the individual level, to “not just become experts in their own area but also gain the ability to understand complex situations and look at economic, social and environmental issues simultaneously” to improve the world they inherited.

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Today, on International Mother Language Day, which is focused on the importance of linguistic diversity for sustainable development, it is important to remember what difference being taught in your mother tongue can make one one’s ability to learn.

Choices over the language of instruction can have a huge impact on learning outcomes

In most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the vast majority of students, probably as many as 85%, are not taught in the language they speak at home. New evidence in the 2017/8 Global Education Monitoring Report shows that 69% of adults with five years of schooling in education systems privileging indigenous languages could read an entire sentence, compared to 41% in colonial or mixed language systems – a gap of 28 percentage points. After controlling for individual characteristics, such as age, religion and place of residence, the estimated effect on literacy outcomes was even larger at 40 percentage points

Country examples back the story up. In Ethiopia, students began to be educated in their mother tongue in 1994. This increased education attainment level by half a year and the probability that students would be able to read an entire sentence by 40%.

In South Africa, an apartheid-era language law had forced black South Africans in Natal province to receive two more years of education in their local language than their peers in other provinces. Although the law was intended to exclude and discriminate, it had the unexpected consequence that literacy rates in Natal were 3.5% higher in Natal.

An experimental project in north-western Cameroon to instruct in the local language instead of English in grades 1 to 3 showed that the full five years of mother-tongue instruction are needed. Students involved achieved basic literacy outcomes. However, gains were not sustained with the switch to English in grade 4, which means that early-exit models should be avoided.

How do we know if children are taught in their home language?

In the 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report we had reported an estimate that 40% of the global population are taught in a language they don’t speak at home. In reality, this estimate is difficult to make.

A background paper for our 2017/8 Report looked at population statistics, language demographics and language in education policies to look at the issue across 11 countries in South-eastern Asia. In some cases, such as in Brunei, no more than 20% of children have access to an education in their home language, while in others, such as in Cambodia and Vietnam, about 90% have that opportunity.

Distinct language variants are a major challenge in making such estimates. For instance, many distinct variants of Malay are spoken in Malaysia, and they are often seen as dialects of Standard Malay. Yet no data on population proficiency in Standard Malay are available. Moreover, many ethnic Chinese Malaysians have access to education in Mandarin Chinese at the primary level, but no data exist on whether Mandarin Chinese is their home language.

Looking at policy documents gives some insight too. A recent review of policy documents in 21 countries in eastern and southern Africa showed that most countries have introduced policies of teaching in an African language from grade 1. But policies are often not implemented due to a lack of resources or will.

Learning assessments provide some useful learning on language policy

Alternative ways to find out are asking teachers, asking parents or children in household surveys or drawing on the student background questionnaires of learning assessments. On average, one in four students in countries that took part in the TIMSS survey don’t often (or ever) speak at home the language in which they were tested.

The PISA survey shows that students from immigrant families are much more likely to speak another language at home, with two-thirds of first-generation immigrant students speaking a language at home that’s different to the one they are taught in. This means that addressing language challenges is becoming a central part of education responses to migration, which new initiatives, such as the Welcome Classes set up in Germany to receive newly immigrated children are being introduced, as the 2019 Global Education Monitoring Report will show.

The reality is that language education policies are stubborn to change

While mother tongue policies may exist on paper, this sometimes doesn’t translate to the classroom. Scanning the news gives you a flavor of the frequency of debates about the issue in different countries. The back and forths about speaking Afrikaans in South African schools are one example, as are the debates around using English in elite education in India, while the majority of the country speaks national languages. Argentinian teachers have criticized the government’s decision to suspend intercultural bilingual education programmes. Lebanon’s Minister of Education has warned against linguistic desertification.

In Bolivia, by contrast, language of instruction policies have been revisited. Recognising the rights of minority language groups goes helps holding governments accountable for fulfilling these rights. At the end of last year, the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples gave Indigenous Peoples the right to establish educational systems based around their own languages and cultures to reflect their histories and worldviews.

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By Sanet L. Steenkamp, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture, Namibia

Image: UNESCO Windhoek

The core responsibility of education systems is imparting the fundamental building blocks of learning, namely the ‘3 R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. Yet national education authorities are increasingly recognizing that while their core responsibility remains crucial, they must also reach beyond it.

Education systems are being called upon to not only help our children learn essential knowledge and skills to navigate an increasingly complex and inter-connected world, but also protect them from inaccurate information driven by myths and value-laden taboos, or harmful social and cultural norms, such as those surrounding gender and power in inter-personal relationships.

Fulfilling this responsibility means empowering young people with the knowledge, skills and attitudes for them to be able to make healthy decisions in all aspects of their lives – including their sexual and reproductive health. In Namibia, great emphasis has been placed on comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) as an important component in achieving this goal.

Learning about sexuality and relationships is good for young people

The 2016 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report indicated that comprehensive sexuality education was one of the most pressing and universal priorities for the health, well-being and development of young people.

For too many young people, the journey to adulthood can be an obstacle course of challenges. The leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years globally is complications from pregnancy, unsafe abortion and childbirth. More than 2 million adolescents are living with HIV. Three in four new HIV infections in adolescents happen in sub-Saharan Africa, and for every five adolescent boys living with HIV, there are seven girls. In Namibia, teenage pregnancy rates among 15- to 19-year-olds is 19%, according to the 2013 National Demographic Health Survey.

Image: UNFPA Namibia

Young people benefit from sexuality education that is accurate, frank, non-judgmental and which acknowledges the breadth of life situations and individual circumstances that shape their life choices. The evidence to this effect remains compelling, with the benefits having not only an important preventative role against negative sexual and reproductive health (SRH) outcomes, but also the transformative potential for respectful, non-violent relationships centered on gender equality and human rights.

National education systems must now evolve to deliver good quality, comprehensive sexuality education, as outlined in the recently revised UN International technical guidance on sexuality education. This tool, produced by UNESCO in collaboration with UNAIDS, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women,  and the WHO, guides national education authorities and stakeholders in the development and implementation of CSE programmes and materials. This evolution also requires the education community to embrace the contribution of CSE to the quality education agenda, which aims to enable all learners to ‘…lead healthy and fulfilled lives, make informed decisions, and respond to local and global challenges’.

Bold leadership spurs country progress

Bold leadership and concerted action are the first steps towards inclusion of CSE in the strategic development priorities of education. In Namibia, the story of CSE has been shaped by such leadership.

Political processes such as the Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) ministerial commitment on young people’s access to CSE and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services have shifted the landscape in favour of CSE, both in and out of school.

Fostering an enabling environment for CSE implementation has helped Namibia in raising awareness among adolescents and young people, and the public at large. Moreover, institutional measures, such as the Memorandum of Understanding on the Integrated School Health Programme signed between the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture and the Ministry of Health and Social Services, has created favourable conditions for inter-ministerial consultation and coordination.

Today, all schools have life skills-based CSE from upper primary to secondary level that is infused across several subjects and delivered by full time life-skills teachers.

A generation of healthy young people supports sustainable development and nation-building

The demographic dividend in Africa will rely on investments in adolescents and youth, and CSE is key to its achievement. Education that engages young people around gender equality, sexuality and sexual and reproductive health is increasingly recognized as beneficial to the well-being of families and communities.

Research suggests that investment that leads to the improved health of young people brings about greater social benefits by boosting productivity, reducing health costs and enhancing social capital. Such capital is in turn reintroduced into education through safe and enabling learning environments, motivated and capacitated teachers, strong school leadership and engaged learners.

For education systems to deliver CSE of good quality they require strong partnerships with other actors, including families, communities, and, other government and non-government bodies. By working together, these partners can help ensure a continuum of care that reaches those on the very margins of society, to be truly inclusive and to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals’ call to ‘leave no one behind’.

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By Mary Hamilton, Lancaster University, UK and Co-Director of the Lab for International Assessment Studies   

A key rationale for carrying out international comparative surveys of skills such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is that the findings can positively influence policy and therefore educational outcomes. Such claims implicate the media as part of a chain of influence. The argument runs that the media publicise the findings, which influence public opinion and in turn this puts pressure on politicians to respond. The media can also compare past successes, failures and improvements through a running commentary on trends in the test scores.

However, the impact of media on educational policy is assumed but not widely researched. My colleagues and I have followed media coverage of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) in France, Japan and the United Kingdom as well as in Greece, New Zealand, Singapore and Slovenia, which took part in the second wave of (PIAAC-2).

While we can envisage positive roles for the media in policy formation, in practice journalists are often blamed for partial and sensational coverage of international survey findings. Researchers and agencies voice frustration at this, searching for ways to prevent misinterpretation of data and poor commentary. Our research suggests that we need a better, more sympathetic understanding of the constraints under which journalists work along with willingness to share responsibility for the ways in which data from international assessments are translated in the public sphere. 

Firstly, it is important to recognise that educational stories are not generally seen as newsworthy. There are many other pressing issues that claim a place on front pages and one of the great achievements of PISA has been its visibility in the news media and ability to sustain coverage by promoting controversy. Media coverage of PIAAC, on the other hand, was uneven and short-lived. The findings were not always treated as new information. Three of the four countries reviewed in our PIAAC-2 research had poor results in at least one dimension of the survey, yet the way the media perceived and the government responded to these findings differed considerably. In only one country, Slovenia, did it seem likely that the results would be used to develop positive change in adult skills policy.

Secondly, the relationship between media and governments varies across countries. In European Union (EU) countries, pluralistic media driven by a combination of economic gain and ideology, compete to offer the most newsworthy stories, which will maximise visibility of the media outlet. In other countries, the media may operate under the more or less close control of the state and are therefore more likely to operate as a mouthpiece for government policy than a dissenting voice.

Thirdly, the media do not act independently, but are part of networks that stretch from the international to the local. Transnational agencies, politicians and other interest groups as well as the economics of the media industry can actively shape the coverage of international survey findings. In some cases, the coverage is polarised by the selection of politicians and interest groups who are invited to comment on the findings. Across the board, a restricted range of expert voices appeared in the media reports. This not only excludes certain less powerful groups from the public conversation, especially teachers and students, but exacerbates polemic between politicians advocating different strategies and blaming of the absent groups.

The OECD produces selective commentary for each country, which highlights significant features of the complex data and their potential policy relevance within national contexts. This framing is backed up by promotional interventions across all media. Our research shows that journalists in all of the countries we studied follow the OECD’s guidance closely in terms of the policy implications discussed and the data features mentioned.

Reporting the surveys challenges journalists to create data-driven stories within a very tight time-scale. Given such time pressures lack of specialist expertise, it is unsurprising that journalists would rely on readily available summary material that is easy to translate into press reports and headline news. New specialist ‘data journalists’ are needed, trained to scrutinise, analyse or re-analyse, and summarise the findings from such datasets if reports are to move beyond the level of superficial comparative rankings.

In the case of PIAAC, the press coverage reverted to more dominant and familiar national discussions about initial schooling and their implications for vocational preparation. Other national debates entered the stories, with coverage centring on controversial issues not mentioned by the OECD, such as patterns of immigration.

The implications for reducing inequality and for improving citizen well-being emphasised by the OECD were largely ignored. The value of the surveys was seen to be related to employment and monetary returns and, as observed in other survey coverage, there is extensive use of external reference countries, which act as significant markers of national identity. Attention is deflected away from systemic within-country policy issues like inequality and towards the relative performance of competitor states.

With great differences in the media industry structures across countries, caution is needed in making generalisations about the power of the media to hold governments accountable. The conditions under which the media operate mean that they cannot be relied upon to contribute to productive public debate within the domain of educational policy. However, more research is required to unpack the complexity of the media’s role, especially the increasing availability of online and interactive social media, which offer possibilities for journalists, policy-makers and the public to delve more deeply into the findings.

We should see the media as just one element in the space for public debate and conversation that may be thriving or highly constrained in a particular context. Opening spaces for collective thinking and conversation are crucial to truly hold governments to account for their educational commitments and to increase the validity of international assessments and their potential positive impact on policy and practice in national contexts.

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By Manos Antoninis, Director, Global Education Monitoring Report, and Francesca Borgonovi, Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

Migration and displacement are complex phenomena which play an important role in – but can also pose challenges to – development. These phenomena also pose particularly important challenges for education and training systems. Firstly, they can rapidly increase the number of people that require education services, thus challenging both richer countries, which until now had been adjusting to shrinking student populations, and poorer countries, where provision is already stretched, especially in remote areas or slums where migrants and refugees often converge.

Secondly, migration and displacement make classrooms more diverse. This means that the range of strategies teachers need to deploy increases in order to cater for a student population with larger differences in background characteristics, such as the language they speak at home.

Thirdly, education is an important means through which migration and displacement can be managed since school often acts as societies’ main instrument for transmitting the social and cultural codes that forge a community spirit.

Information of good quality is crucial to develop the right policy responses, which is why the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 17.18 calls on countries to “increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by … migratory status … and other characteristics relevant in national contexts” by 2020. Yet, collecting statistics on migrants and displaced people to ensure that education and training systems have the capacity to meet their needs is complicated. Population movements take very different forms: international vs. internal; temporary vs. permanent; those moving in successive stages vs. those returning; documented vs. undocumented; voluntary vs. forced, including internally displaced and refugee populations; students vs. workers, and, in the latter case, skilled or unskilled, and so on. Migrants and displaced people themselves may be in different stages in their life cycle or may differ in their circumstances, for example adults vs. children or individuals vs. families.

To address these issues, as part of the Strength Through Diversity project, a two-day forum on data about education, migration and displacement is being held in Paris, organised by the OECD and the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, whose next edition is focusing on migration and displacement. Such issues refer to at least two levels.

At the macro level, demographic data often do not capture the education profiles of migrants and refugees. The ideal data source, which provides information on both stocks and flows of migration by gender, age, and education, does not yet exist. These questions were addressed last month at the International Forum on Migration Statistics, which also looked at one other dimension of  the education-migration nexus: international student mobility.

At the micro level, which is the focus of this two-day event, a range of data sources are important:

  • Multi-purpose household surveys that contain information on internal and, in high income countries, international migration via questions concerning the place of previous residence or duration of current residence, such as the World Bank Living Standard Measurement Survey and the European Union Survey of Income and Living Conditions. Longitudinal surveys provide further insights.
  • School surveys of learning achievement which can link detailed student background to educational outcomes. For example, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) asks questions on the student’s country of birth, age of arrival in the host country, and language spoken at home. PISA also assess aspects of student well-being, such as integration and sense of belonging in the school community.
  • Surveys on values and attitudes that can relate education to perceptions of the host population concerning migrants and refugees. For example, three waves of the International Social Survey Programme, six waves of the World Values Survey and two waves of the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study tackled relevant questions on this topic. These studies can assess how education systems build values, attitudes, norms and beliefs that improve interpersonal trust and increase civic engagement, which are pillars of democracy.
  • Teacher surveys, such as the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), and national surveys that ask questions on teacher preparation for diversity and attitudes towards a diverse student population.

Given the challenges of education systems, the complex forms of population movements, the differences in background characteristics of migrants and displaced people, the different outcomes of education, and the different sources of information available, there is a patchwork of issues, and this requires coordination between researchers and practitioners working in multiple different fields.

The idea of collecting data on education by migratory status that is comparable across countries may be an unattainable goal due to the extreme diversity of migrants and displaced populations. However, the need for documenting and understanding differences in participation, attainment, learning and attitudes between migrants/refugees and host populations for policy purposes remains urgent.

In this context, this two-day forum in Paris has the following aims:

  • Provide an inventory of existing data sources and ones that are under development
  • Showcase good practices in data and measurement that approach effectively particular aspects of the migration-education relationship and improve understanding of social phenomena
  • Identify data and measurement aspects of the migration-education relationship that require urgent attention in order for social phenomena to be better understood
  • Assess the merits of equity-oriented migration and education indicators, looking at both intra- and inter-generational issues
  • Make recommendations on potential questionnaire items for key areas of interventions the migration-education relationship
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By David Archer

The Global Partnership for Education replenishment event, co-hosted by President Macron and President Macky Sall on 2nd February in Senegal, was a landmark moment for education financing. Over $2 billion were pledged by donors for the GPE’s core fund to support developing countries with credible education sector plans over the coming years. More dramatically, over $30 billion was pledged by developing country Presidents and Ministers to their own citizens – increasing projected budgets for education from $80 billion to $110 billion. This should mark a turning point in how we all conceive the GPE and its potential in the coming years.

The partnership of donors, developing countries and strong civil society representation is a key strength of GPE and it is the inter-dependency of these that has helped GPE make a breakthrough. Too often in the past, aid funding has displaced domestic spending in the education sector, as in other sectors. A few years ago, one government that will remain nameless cut its spending on education from 17% of the budget down to 14%` and then approached GPE for a grant of $100 million to fill the gap. This ends up doing more harm than good – replacing sustainable domestic funding with short term and unpredictable aid. GPE responded by making it an absolute requirement that developing county governments maintain or increase their own spending (towards or beyond a benchmark of 20% of national budgets) to be eligible for GPE support.

In the previous replenishment of GPE in 2014, developing countries made their own pledges for the first time and promised to increase spending by $26 billion. This was bold but lacked credibility as the pledges lacked baselines and the formats in which they were presented made it almost impossible to track. ActionAid, working with the Global Campaign for Education, reviewed the progress of these pledges to the extent possible and found they fell short in many ways. We used this to make the case for more credible domestic pledges in the future. The secretariat of the Global Partnership for Education has now done systematic work to ensure that the pledges made on 2nd February 2018 all have clear baselines, are formulated in a clear way and can indeed be tracked.

This time, then, the $30 billion announced by developing countries should constitute truly serious commitments – and so it is not unreasonable to say that GPE mobilised a total of $32 billion for education over the coming three years. This makes it bigger than any other replenishment of any other fund that I am aware of – and more importantly, the vast bulk of this money is predictable and sustainable domestic financing and is focused on promoting systemic reform. Too many other global funds, such as those in the health sector, end up displacing domestic funding, supporting short term projects for earmarked initiatives and sometimes undermining rather than reinforcing systems. Having lived in the shadow of health funds for many years, the education sector should truly celebrate!

There are of course some BUTs. Firstly, the way in which the GPE measures the share of the budget spent on education must be reassessed, looking at total government spending, before debt servicing rather than after debts have been paid. This is the standard practice and changing this as GPE has proposed is deeply problematic, not least because it normalises debt at a time when debt levels are rising and often constrain education spending.

Secondly, the full detail of all the domestic funding pledges need to be transparently shared, immediately, so that national civil society actors can hold their governments to account on financing, knowing exactly what they promised. It must be representative broad-based alliances of national civil society, not the GPE or donors, that play this role, as governments are accountable to the citizens in their own country for delivering on the right to education. National education coalitions that are members of the Global Campaign for Education are ready to take on this work in 85 countries and simply await the release of the full details of the pledges made by their governments. These coalitions will also pressurise their governments to produce annual National Education Monitoring Reports – which is a key recommendation from this year’s  Global Education Monitoring Report on accountability.

Thirdly, there is an urgent need for GPE to explore new ways for developing country governments to make financing commitments to education. Looking just at the share of the budget spent on education is a blunt instrument and many Ministers of Education in Dakar committed to spend 25% or more, but observed it is still not enough. In many cases the reason is obvious. A large share of a small pie is a small amount. The real challenge for many countries is to increase the size of the pie – by increasing domestic tax revenue. On average the tax to GDP ratio of low income countries is only 16% whilst OECD countries collect more than double that and some countries with strong public services have ratios over 40%. GPE must get serious now about what it can do to support countries to expand their tax base in a progressive way, whilst maintaining or increasing the share of revenues spent on education. President Akufo-Addo of Ghana rightly observed in his speech at the GPE event in Dakar ‘every year $50 billion go out of Africa by illicit means’. He called passionately for fair tax on natural resource extraction and for countries to ‘organise ourselves to ensure that the huge wealth of this continent is used for the benefit of its people and not for those outside’. Civil society campaigners have already made these connections between education justice and tax justice and some donors like Norway and France are now echoing the call. GPE urgently needs to do more to maximise the connections between progressive tax and progressive spending on education.

Fourthly, GPE needs to be exemplary in the way that it engages with the private sector in the coming years. Two of the most glaring ways in which developing countries are losing tax revenue are through governments giving away what the IMF call harmful tax incentives to multinational companies and through aggressive tax avoidance by some of the richest companies. The government of Pakistan for example gives away $4 billion a year in unnecessary tax incentives to big companies – and 20% of that would be enough to get all the 5 million children out of school into school and to enable the deployment of 100,000 new professional teachers. There is a Global Business Coalition on Education that is now connected with the GPE Board and which includes major companies like Microsoft, Intel, Accenture, KPMG, Pearson, Reed Smith, Gucci, Chevron, Tata and Standard Chartered Bank. The biggest single contribution each of them could make to improving education around the world would be for each to commit to fully transparent country-by-country reporting of their tax affairs so that they are in the forefront of paying fair taxes in the countries where they make their profits. This should be a requirement for those who wish to engage seriously with GPE.

Finally, we all need to help GPE to hold the donor community to account. Donor countries delivered just over $2 billion (with notable commitments from EU, UK, Norway, France, Denmark, Sweden, Canada and UAE – and even a small grant from Senegal itself!) but the GPE hoped to raise over $3.1 billion. As the Global Education Monitoring Report 2017/8 powerfully observes, those who are least accountable in education tend to be the international community. Here again, civil society pressure will be crucial. Some donors really need to commit more funding and all donors need to deliver on their promises without imposing conditions.

Let us all work together to celebrate this ground-breaking replenishment of GPE and let us understand that it marks a fundamental shift of power, rightfully placing developing countries and their citizens at the heart of the progress we are making on fulfilling the right to education.

Follow @DavidArcherAA on Twitter.

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This blog is written by Catherine A Honeyman, Senior Youth Workforce Specialist at World Learning and visiting Lecturer, Duke Center for International Development at Duke University. Catherine is also the author of a case study on accountability and education in Rwanda commissioned for the 2017/8 GEM Report. The blog is part of a series showing that accountability in education is shaped by a country’s history and political, social, and cultural context.

Background: Rwanda’s education system

Rwanda has been part of an impressive global record of achievements in improving access to education—and it has also been part of the worldwide struggle to ensure that children who are in school actually learn. Rwanda’s accountability practices and policies, in all their strengths and weaknesses, are a key piece in understanding this larger puzzle.

Challenges in education quality

An enthusiastic supporter of the Millennium Development Goals, Rwanda was an early achiever of universal primary education and gender equity in schooling. Yet significant challenges still remain. Why are 50% of grade 1 students, 26% of grade 2 students, and even 14% of grade 3 students reaching the end of the school year without being able to read even a single word in Kinyarwanda? On the other hand, what made it possible for the percentage of literate grade 1 and grade 2 students to increase by about 10% over the past few years?

In an immediate sense, these are questions about teacher practice and pedagogy, and perhaps about parental engagement and the availability of quality learning and teaching materials. But stepping back, we arrive at broader questions of policy, financing, formal and informal institutions, and accountability.

Defining accountability

The concept of accountability in Rwanda is influenced by English, French, and most importantly, Kinyarwanda—through the adaptation of two distinct families of concepts. The first of these emphasizes “responsibility” (inshingano, a term that can mean responsibility, role, or duty). Someone who is accountable has “fulfilled his or her responsibilities” appropriately (kuzuza inshingano ze), as defined by someone higher up in a hierarchy.

The second family of concepts that is currently most used in relation to “accountability” is derived from the verb “to vow, to promise” (guhiga). The related noun imihigo, of prominent importance in contemporary Rwanda was originally used in the sense of a vow to undertake an act of bravery in the context of competing with others (guhiganwa). Today it means a pledge or a promise regarding what will be accomplished by the responsible party. After one has made this pledge, one should “show what one has achieved” (guhigura). In this sense, Rwandan government and public discourse today promotes accountability as “the culture of setting goals and achieving them” (umuco wo guhiga no guhigura).

Neither of these, however, express the dimension of accountability that is really crucial for achieving Rwanda’s educational aspirations. That will require a redefinition of hierarchy—of “fulfilling one’s responsibilities” not only to those in charge, but most importantly to the people. Accountability in the Rwandan context needs to be re-thought as doing one’s best in service to those who most need your efforts—the children who are struggling to learn, and the parents who have aspirations for a better future.

Different approaches to accountability are followed in Rwandan education

In the case study I developed for the 2017/8 GEM Report, I examined four dimensions of accountability in Rwanda: top-down accountability structures and practices, bottom-up accountability, and horizontal accountability, as well as the cross-cutting influence of Rwanda’s Imihigo or performance contracts.

Top-down accountability consists of the laws, structures, and practices by which each level of the education system is held responsible for its actions by higher levels in the hierarchy. Bottom-up accountability is the means by which the general population can hold those in authority to account. Horizontal accountability comes about among institutions and actors that are not involved in a hierarchical relationship. Finally, there is imihigo a type of professional accountability, which takes the form of a performance management contract or a pledge by an official to achieve certain objectives over a fixed period.

Each of these dimensions has its strengths and weaknesses in Rwanda.

As for top-down accountability, education sector authorities, for example, find it difficult to hold school heads to account, since they serve under different administrative structures. School general assemblies exist as a concept, and function as a bottom-up accountability mechanism, but public knowledge of what constitutes a quality education is limited, as is the general population’s power to hold their schools and local leaders accountable.

Horizontal accountability has worked remarkably well in Rwanda but may wax and wane depending on particular government agency and civil society leadership from year to year.

Imihigo by its very nature has been shown to be effective as far as it provides a public benchmark to assess performance against stated objectives. It is not uncommon for leaders to resign in the face of a poor evaluation. In 2015, for example, the Mayors of four districts along with some key staff resigned following the Imihigo evaluation process. The case study cautions that imihigo pledges, risks being out of sync with real education priorities which or often overlooked by grander pledges more favorable to the public.   

What is missing from all of this is a discussion of professionals in the education sector holding themselves accountable for serving the Rwandan population to the best of their ability. No amount of laws and institutions can change this—it is a question of instilling a new sense of ethical duty to others in public servants at all levels of the educational hierarchy.

2017/8 GEM Report recommendations
Global Rwanda
Governments must make the right to education justiciable in national law, which is not the case in 45% of countries. The right to education is justiciable in national law.
Governments should be transparent about the strengths of weaknesses of education systems, opening policy processes to broad and meaningful consultation and publishing a regular education monitoring report. Rwanda produced a national education monitoring report in 2011.
Governments should develop credible and efficient regulations with associated sanctions for all education providers, public and private, that ensure non-discrimination and the quality of education. Rwanda has regulations on the maximum teachers to pupils in primary and secondary education in both public and private schools, as well as on health and safety and required teacher qualifications.
Governments should fulfil their commitment of spending at least 4% of GDP on education or allocating 15% of total government expenditure. Rwanda does not reach either of the two financing targets for education, spending 3.8% of GDP and 12.4% of public expenditure on education.
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With the curtains of the third Financing Conference of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) in Dakar, Senegal now closed, it is important to remember the context in which it was organized.

During the first half of this decade, aid to education stagnated even as overall funding increased by 24% in the middle of a financial crisis. In 2015, the international community agreed a more ambitious education agenda with additional cost implications. The Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report estimated an annual financing gap of $39 billion between 2015 and 2030 if low and lower middle income countries were to achieve universal pre-primary, primary and secondary education.

(Not) All I see is dollar signs

Aid to education remains a significant source of financing, at least in low income countries. However, aid is valuable not only because of the dollars spent but also because of the support it can provide to education systems, if effectively provided. The GPE still represents a small share, by the latest count just 12%, of total external funding to basic education. But as the leading global fund for education, it has played a constructive role in targeting aid to countries most in need, aligning with country priorities, and engaging a broad group of stakeholders in reviewing the implementation of national education plans.

The GPE had set itself the target to quadruple its disbursements to its developing country partners by 2020. With increasing evidence on the importance of education not only as a human right but also as a catalyser for achieving the other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one of the key questions in the audience at the conference was: what were we waiting for?

In the end, it is estimated that between $2.3 and $2.5 out of the targeted $3.1 billion will be committed for the period 2018-2020. While short of what was requested, this replenishment round has raised up to $400 million more in absolute terms than the last round for 2015-2017.

Will the international community be looking back at the conference as an event that helped stop the decline of education in the order of international development priorities? It is difficult to know as it all depends on whether aid to education overall is also going to rise in coming years or whether GPE will simply command a bigger share of the same level of total aid to education.

But the smooth organization of the event, the impressive presence of political leaders and advocates for education and the fact that partners were given space to voice their thoughts and set out their plans, helping to keep alive the spirit of partnership, were all positive signs.

The European Commission in absolute terms and Norway in relative terms emerged as the most generous donors. Other donors demonstrated their trust in the future of the Global Partnership by committing higher contributions than in the last replenishment round. There was a pledge of $100 million from the United Arab Emirates, the first from a non-OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) member. Expectations that China might have contributed, though, were dashed. A firm commitment from the United States is still on the cards.

By 2020, the United Kingdom will continue being the largest contributor since the establishment of GPE. However, it made 30% of its latest pledge conditional to results. The GEM Report, which launched a policy paper on results-based financing at the conference, has urged caution with the wider application of such approaches. However, the disbursement linked indicators, which have been used by the GPE in some of its partner countries, are rather carefully selected and could provide positive incentives.

Who is accountable?

Domestic pledges were also counted. These took the form of a commitment to increase the share of budget to education to over 20%. As with the last replenishment round, it is more difficult to monitor the fulfilment of these pledges. It was not clear what part of that increase would end up financing basic and not other levels of education. And information on public expenditure is neither reliable nor up-to-date, although GPE is collaborating with UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS) to improve data availability.

There is no existing study of domestic pledges over 2015-2017. However, as we had commented at the time of the last replenishment, these pledges had not been very credible and developing countries were certainly less successful at keeping their promises than donors.

But if domestic pledges are fulfilled this time over 2018-2020, it is estimated that $110 billion would go to education. This is a reminder that even in the poorest countries, external financing is only a very small part of the picture.

While the Presidents of France and Senegal were cheered as co-hosts of the conference, it was the president of Ghana who received the strongest round of applause when he reminded the audience that rich countries had to help put an end to $50 billion worth of illicit financing flows that was depriving education from valuable resources. Adding to this, the Foreign Minister of Norway said that his country would fund not only education but also the development of poor countries’ capacity to raise domestic resources.

What next?

With a smaller pledge than planned, one important question is whether it makes sense for the Global Partnership for Education to extend its reach from 65 to 89 countries, which was one of the objectives of the replenishment. One of its most distinguished characteristics was the ability to target countries most in need and certainly an extended country coverage is only ever going to dilute this effort.

The conference also addressed data and monitoring issues. The Education Data Solutions Roundtable was a highly publicized initiative but more as a symbol of drawing private funds into the Global Partnership rather than for its real merit, which is to bring into education the idea of a national network of data producers and users that was first implemented in agriculture.

There was no discussion over the continuing challenge that donor resources to the GPE are not yet identifiable in the OECD DAC database of aid flows. This makes it hard to attribute any education advances in developing countries to the activities of the GPE. The progress promised in 2014 has not yet materialized although efforts continue.

Finally, on the bigger picture of SDG 4 monitoring, the GEM Report joined a panel to support the investment case for data collection that UIS put together in January. Following this investment plan would help target external and domestic funding to those activities that are most critical for reporting on the SDG 4 global and thematic indicators, namely learning assessments and household surveys, and avoid waste and duplication of resources.

The challenge ahead

The third Financing Conference showed that partners approve of the efforts the GPE has made to bring them together for a common purpose. This is an achievement that is down to a lot of hard work by its Secretariat and Board. But after a pause to celebrate and take a breath, we all need to go back to the hard slog: there will be no sustainable development until all children complete and benefit from equitable and inclusive education of good quality. And yet, as of today, nine out of ten children in sub-Saharan Africa do not even achieve minimum proficiency in reading skills.

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The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) 3rd replenishment conference (February 1-2) aims to confirm significant increases in commitments from partner countries and donors – old and new – in order to ensure that all children and youth are in school and learning. GPE’s goal is to reach US$2 billion a year by 2020 to deliver better learning and equity outcomes for some 870 million children and adolescents in 89 countries.

The increased pledges are demanded within a particular context of aid to education trends, the changing role of GPE, and the higher stakes with the adoption of Sustainable Development Goal 4. With 387 million children not learning the basics, most of them in countries where GPE operates, it is crucial that partners scale their commitments to education up according to the GPE targets.

Aid to education has been stagnating

The 2017/8 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report showed that aid to education in 2015 was 4% below 2010 levels. It further revealed that the education share of total aid fell for six consecutive years, from 10% in 2009 to 6.9% in 2015. Comparatively, the share of aid towards the health and population sectors increased from 11.4% to 15.9% between 2004 and 2013 (only witnessing a decline in the two years after that). Likewise, the aid share received by the transport sector caught up with education during the same time.

Yet, previous estimates by the GEM Report in 2015 had showed that low and lower middle income countries faced an annual education financing gap of US$39 billion over 2015–2030 if it were to achieve universal pre-primary, primary and secondary education. In low income countries, this is equivalent to 42% of the total cost (UNESCO, 2015). Even after factoring in ambitious domestic financing increases, aid to education in low and lower middle income countries would need to increase six times relative to the 2012 levels. This estimate was largely confirmed by the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity in 2016. Instead, donors have continued to place lower priority to education and, often have not directed their aid to those countries most in need.

GPE has been increasing its share of aid to education and better targeting to countries in need

In a context of stagnating aid, GPE disbursements have reached to US$446 million in 2015, making the organization the second-largest multilateral donor to basic and secondary education after the World Bank. In 2015, GPE disbursements made up 12% of basic and secondary education aid in its partner countries, as compared to 6% in 2010.

In addition, with about 77% of its disbursements directed to sub-Saharan Africa and nearly 60% to countries affected by civil unrest or conflict, GPE has demonstrated effectiveness in targeting countries that are most in need. This is the result of the GPE allocation model, which takes both the needs of the education sector in the partner country and the income level of the country in question into account. In February 2017, GPE introduced a new allocation model based on a needs index.

GPE has also followed a number of good practices, including a robust process of assessing grant proposals, the focus of its support on the national education plan, and a process of joint sector review that aims to be consultative and broad. At the same time, its governance processes have aimed to strengthen the partnership elements.

What should we expect?

With this new replenishment round, GPE seeks to increase annual disbursements by four times. Overall, momentum and visibility around the conference, boosted by the endorsement of major donors, including the European Union, France and the United Kingdom suggest that achieving the $3.1 billion target could be a watershed moment for education globally. Success in meeting the target would be good news after the last replenishment round fell short and especially in a political climate that is not very supportive of multilateralism.

Depending on the success of the replenishment round, up to US$240 million may also become available for the GPE’s new Knowledge and Innovation Exchange mechanism to fund research and policy analysis. This would be great news for an area of work that is often neglected. A forthcoming GEM Report policy paper on the financing of global public goods in education will address where responsibilities for their provision lie.

But the total volume raised at the conference should not distract us from the fact that US$2 billion is a far cry from the US$39 billion financing gap. This is especially so if it only means a larger share a stagnant total aid pie. We should not forget that GPE was originally established not as a fund but as a catalyst of increased spending by governments and donors alike. The conference calls upon the responsibility of all partners.

In preparation for the replenishment conference the GEM Report has produced this factsheet containing key GEM Report findings and resources prepared for partners that are advocating for the need to #FundEducation.

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