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Unfinished Business in Global Education by Nicholas Burnett

By Nicholas Burnett, senior fellow, Results for Development

Unfinished business [Editor’s pick]

Global education is not in good shape. There is too much unfinished business. I draw attention to four such areas, making no attempt to be comprehensive but rather focusing on topics of personal importance to me:


  1. Sterile debates continue to dominate.

Our field remains excessively concerned about a series of sterile debates. Let me list just three major ones: whether education is important because it is a human right or because it contributes to economic and social development (both, undoubtedly); whether education should be exclusively publicly delivered or should rather deploy both public and non-state sectors to achieve objectives (the latter, obviously); whether education should use evidence from randomized control trials and take advantage of the potential of big data (of course, it should). I have argued before, in my 2008 Gaitskell lecture at Nottingham University and in my short 2012 NORRAG comment about the draining effect of these sterile debates and about the need for our sector to be more pragmatic and scientific.

  1. The international education architecture is still not fit for purpose.

As someone who has proudly held management positions at the World Bank, the Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report and UNESCO, I am saddened by the decline of UNESCO and this community’s inability to sort out the international education architecture. The education Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4)—with its inclusion of early childhood development and emphasis on equity—is praiseworthy in many ways, but it is also so vague and non-specific that it is not likely to lead to action. There is duplication of purpose and delivery in terms of financing among the World Bank, the regional multilateral development banks, GPE and bilateral donors, duplication that can hardly be afforded in an environment of declining aid to education and one in which foundations and the private sector have yet to contribute in any major way, despite some very modest initial steps. The result is that countries in greatest need, especially in Africa, are relatively underfunded and so things that ought to be easy to provide, such as books and learning materials, including in mother tongue languages are not getting in the hands of the children who need them. There is also vast under-financing and under-provision of global analyses and tools in education; only 3% of international spending in education goes to data or knowledge generation compared to 21% in health. My former World Bank boss and now R4D senior fellow colleague Birger Fredriksen has for years been drawing attention to this huge gap in the education system. The international institutions need to develop more confidence in each other; unless they work more closely together, for example by giving real content to Education 2030, it is hard to see how SDG4 can be achieved. Even more radically, they should consider allocating the important international functions differently across themselves and securing a common pot of funding for global public goods in education. I still hope that the Education Commission will lead the reform of this architecture, and I am heartened to see promising progress on the new proposed MDB financing mechanism.

  1. Neglected out-of-school children and adult illiterates.

SDG4 has replaced the Millennium Development and Education for All goals of getting all children into school and of making a major dent in adult illiteracy. The goal’s emphasis on all levels of the system, on learning rather than just enrollment, and on equity, is great. But enrollment still matters. And the fact is that the absolute number of out-of-school children has stagnated around 260 million at both primary and secondary levels since about 2007. The numbers of adult illiterates, two-thirds of whom are women, have also stagnated around 770 million, though this is almost certainly an underestimate. Yet, with some important exceptions such Education Above All, very few in the global education community now pay attention to getting the out-of-school children into school, except in the context of conflict and displaced people. And we continue to ignore illiterate adult women, as we have for decades, all in the false belief that efforts to educate children will solve the problem.

  1. Innovative financing and Early Childhood Development (ECD) financing.

Frustratingly, there has been little practical movement to adopt innovative financing in education, though one of its cousins, results-based financing, is starting to take off. The reluctance appears to be linked to the tension that exists between paying for results and education being a right; quite reasonably one should not deny children an education just because their school is not producing results. It is also linked to the fact that several innovative financing techniques may work better for non-state education than for publicly provided education. There are ways around all of this, but unfortunately there is a lack of political will to tackle it. The ECD financing problem is a bit different. The case for ECD is now overwhelming; yet its very nature (multi-sectoral and involving both public and private actors) calls for more than simply allocating a budget to a ministry and expecting them to get on with investments. Instead, a lot of creative mechanisms are needed to raise and allocate financing for ECD.
I urge the international education community to pay attention to these four areas. Stop the sterile debates. Get the architecture sorted out. Enroll the out-of-school and provide programs for illiterate adults. Adopt innovative financing and tackle the issue of ECD financing.

Nicholas Burnett served as Results for Development’s (R4D) founding managing director for global education from December 2009 through February 2017. He is now a senior fellow with R4D, chairs the Governing Board of UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning and is a member of NORRAG’s Consultative Council. 

Part of this blog was first posted on the R4D blog on 1st March 2017.

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

Disclaimer: NORRAG’s blog offers a space for dialogue about issues, research and opinion on education and development. The views and factual claims made in NORRAG posts are the responsibility of their authors and are not necessarily representative of NORRAG’s policy or activities.

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1 Response

  1. H. Abadzi

    All the unfinished business that Nick brings up is right. But he left out the most important one: How to design education programs that actually make information stick in students brains.

    The picture of the unfinished airplane is very apt. Would anyone dream of designing an airplane without knowing its physics? Planes don’t fly on the basis of public relations, procurement systems, or seat comfort. But in education, clueless designs are made every day. In fact, learning science actively gets kicked off the plane by the World Bank, UNESCO, and other donors. The parameters necessary to fly information into students’ brains are considered boring details, that local actors will somehow figure out. So international education is like a plane waiting for an engine.

    Nick, hopefully you will have a long life and a next career. Consider going to the university again to take classes in cognitive neuroscience. Surely you will think of ingenious ways to finish the unfinished business.

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