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From the GMR to UNESCO to Education Results for Development

By Nicholas Burnett.

My title describes my own career over the last decade, during which I have been Director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO and now Managing Director for Education at Results for Development, where we are dedicated to unlocking solutions to tough development challenges that prevent people in low- and middle-income countries from realizing their potential. This decade has very much been the period during which results, evidence and Value for Money have come to the fore in education.

Overall I welcome this development because it finally provides an opportunity to tackle the appalling conservatism and lack of questioning that characterizes much of education.  Education systems are organized the way they are because that is how they have always been organized.  This conservatism no doubt stems from many sources, but two seem to me fundamental: the sociology of teachers and administrators and the assertion of the right to education.

Around the world, teachers are not drawn from the ranks of the academically most able – the exceptions are those countries like Finland and Singapore which rank very highly on the international comparative assessments like PISA.  In particular, other than specialized secondary school teachers, teachers have very often had little or no exposure to scientific method and the use of evidence. So they tend not to apply it very much to their own work and this can then affect the whole of a country’s educational system, as the ranks of educational administrators are most commonly made up of promoted teachers. It is, frankly, rather scary that we on the one hand talk so frequently of the importance of students learning to think critically and on the other do not employ as teachers those who have themselves been exposed to the basics of such thinking.

I have been as vocal as anyone in asserting that education is a human right – indeed this was my principal motivation in working at UNESCO. But one of its downsides is to create an atmosphere that does not sufficiently allow questioning. This is not strictly logical, of course – there is no reason that we should not apply reason and evidence in figuring out how best to ensure that people realize their rights.  But the assertion of the right does, in practice, seem to produce a kind of intellectual laziness and even a reluctance to examine different ways of achieving the right.

The new emphasis on results, evidence and Value for Money largely stems from two sources: the revolution in development economics that has resulted from the application of randomized control trials (RCTs) and the concern of taxpayer-funded aid agencies to show that they are indeed financing the achievement of good and cost-effective outcomes.

Of course, there are important limitations to RCTs especially that they don’t help much with really big questions like the relative performance of the public and the non-state sectors or with decentralizing from a federal to a state level.  But these experimental techniques, which derive from medicine, are quickly showing how little we actually know about what really works in education at the level of the classroom and the school. About the only result which currently seems very robust is that remediation works – identifying early on those pupils who are not doing as well as others and taking steps to support them so they do not fall behind; another attribute could be like having recruited teachers of high academic ability that characterizes top performing education systems.  Almost everything else is yet to be systematically established.

Aid agencies’ concern with cost-effectiveness and VfM can certainly be criticized as imposing a new type of conditionality – indeed, this is one reason why I do not particularly support moves towards “cash on delivery” aid for education. At the same time, it has encouraged a very welcome return to thinking about results, costs, cost-effectiveness, alternatives and the like which had characterized the early days of aid to education in the 1960s but which had got very lost by the end of the last century with the growth of the rights-based Education for All movement. It is striking how the use of rigorous analysis in the international health field has led aid for health to almost double as a proportion of total aid to its current level around 17 percent over the last 10 years while that for education has stagnated around 10 percent.

So, of course, there are some risks and oversimplifications attached to the use of results, evidence and VfM in education but these are insignificant compared to the enormous benefits that are beginning to stem from a more rigorous approach to what works and what it costs.  May it further erode the professional conservatism of the education community.


Nicholas Burnett is a Managing Director at Results for Development Institute, Washington. Email:

This piece first appeared in NORRAG NEWS, Value for Money in International Education: A New World of Results, Impacts and Outcomes, No.47, April 2012, pp. 20-21. It was also posted on the Results for Development Institute Blog.

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