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22 Aug 2013

Education, Knowledge and Evidence in the Post-2015 High-Level Panel Report: Utopian, Poetic or Technocratic? All Three! (Part 2)

[read part 1 of this blog post here]


PART II:  Education and Training: on the change curve or the mainstream one?

By Michel Carton, NORRAG.

What does this mean for education and training? Noting the frequency of the following words enables some assumptions to be made:

Education 22

Schools 3 (mostly primary)

(Il)Literacy 1

Non-formal education 0

Learning 6 (mostly in Goal 3: provide quality education and lifelong learning)

Teaching 0: what are teachers doing (3 occurrences in the text!)?

Universities 2: It seems that these institutions are not of particular concern to the Panel. Who is going to run the New Data Revolution advocated by the Eminent Persons?

It emerges from this word count that the Panel has hardly moved on from what the MDGs have been proposing for over 10 years: primary schooling as the main solution to educational problems linked to poverty eradication. The low qualitative educational results obtained in the schools of a large number of least developed countries cast doubt on the undeniable relevance of this position, even more so as it is based on a 20-year-old analysis (G. Psacharopoulos, 1994) whose methodologies and results have been widely challenged.

The other forms and levels of general education are almost completely ignored, the exception being lower secondary schooling where universal access and improved productivity are expected. In order to be objectively assessed, this improvement will surely be measured according to the learning outcomes the Brookings Institution is endeavouring to promote as universal standards (the word standard appears 14 times in the text, in various fields). All of this is designed to improve the quality of education, quality in general having become a leitmotif of the post-2015 debates (the word quality appears 14 times in the text, mostly for education and health).

The question might be asked though as to whether there is a contradiction between the relatively important and relevant presence in the Report of an approach based on inequalities (18, all in the text, not in the Goals summary presentation, Annex 1), and the disconnect between that approach and the call for universal standards that can only take very limited account of inequalities in education access and effectiveness as a reflection of different contexts. In fact, it is by investing as much if not more in access and effectiveness, as well as in the internal quality of education, that concrete results may be achieved (even in Geneva!).

It is also possible to assume that the ideal combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches to education access and effectiveness could be obtained in contexts that are already relatively advantaged. It remains to be seen as to whether the pernicious effects of increased pupil numbers in primary schooling resulting from the first MDGs precisely to the detriment of quality, will not recur elsewhere with the spread of lower secondary schooling, as proposed under Goal 3: it is easier to build schools than to provide quality education; or rather learning, since teachers-electors are almost wholly absent from the Report (see Part I). It will also be more profitable economically for “Microsoft, Nokia and publisher Pearson [to] offer digital, mobile educational tools” (p.23). Is it offering or selling?

Nevertheless, the Report does contain some good news compared to the MDGs, which is probably linked to the priority accorded to growth and jobs:

The word (life) skills appears 10 times.

The word (vocational) training appears 3 times.

These spheres, at the interface of the fields of education, work and employment, were not sufficiently taken into account in either the Millennium Development Goals or the Education for All goals. Positioning education and training in the context of lifelong learning, as proposed in Goal 3 of the Report, is a step in the right direction.

The hope remains that there will be some originality in the institutional, financial and technical implementation of these guidelines: balancing supply- and demand-based approaches, diversifying providers and funders and taking account of the situation on the ground in many “developing countries” will take time to introduce and monitor, according to some universal learning outcomes indicators. The fact that the term informal sector only crops up three times leaves room for doubt as to the latter’s potential in meeting the non-formal education and training needs and demands of the more than one billion poor active in that environment. It is then to be feared that the easy way out – that is, the construction of training centres that become obsolete within a matter of years like the “white elephants” left over from the 1980s – will be taken for short-term political reasons.

Fortunately, the questionable solutions envisaged for education and training will not be bought by policy makers, as they are going to rely on data, results and evidence based on the knowledge already available and expanded thanks to the New Data Revolution, as we shall see in Part III.

Michel Carton is the Executive Director of NORRAG. Email:

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