Why we need a Flagship Indicator for Education: all Children in School and Learning

By Bridget Crumpton, the Education Commission, and Silvia Montoya, UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

For the past year, we have been pushing for more and better data to help ensure that no-one is left behind – a key objective of the new Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data launched in Cape Town this January. We have cultivated new partnerships while promoting innovative data tools and approaches to monitor progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education. But clearly monitoring is only one side of the picture.  It must be reinforced by strong advocacy to make an impact and galvanize stronger global action on education. And strong advocacy, in turn, benefits greatly from a flagship indicator that can serve as a rallying point – an indicator that is easy to understand by all and that comes to symbolize the larger global goal.

In health, the main global goal under the SDGs is to reduce the rate of under-five mortality. For climate change, it’s holding the world to a maximum temperature rise of 2 degrees. But what is the flagship indicator for SDG 4, with its pledge to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning? The absence of an equivalent lead indicator in education may undermine both national and global action and investment in education.  And, it could be argued, weaken the focus on learning outcomes.

A few years ago, in the era of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the rallying call for education was the number of children out of school while the primary completion rate served as the lead indicator. The data, produced by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), were widely disseminated and easy to grasp, making headlines in countries around the world. Today, we have a set of 11 global and a set of 43 thematic indicators that help set a course for countries to measure a wide range of issues shaping everything from access (school readiness, enrolment ratios) to outcomes (learning and school completion).  With the more comprehensive and ambitious vision of SDG4, it becomes all the more vital to set a lead indicator. So, what is the flagship indicator that can serve as a barometer for progress and pull these frameworks together without diluting them?

What will a flagship learning indicator look like?

In December, UIS and the Education 2030 Steering Committee put forward an indicator that would go straight to the heart of the SDG 4 agenda: ensure that all children are in school and learning. Rather than replacing the global and thematic indicators, we are confident that this flagship indicator would help to draw attention to them.

This indicator responds to calls from the Education Commission  for an indicator that reflects the spirit of SDG 4 by focusing national and global efforts on learning as well as access. What is crucial is that the proposed indicator combines data on the quality of education (such as share of children at the end of primary and lower secondary with a minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics), with the unfinished business of the MDGs: the completion rate and/or out-of-school rate for these age groups.

While there are several options to consider, the new indicator will have to combine different types of data and sources of information. It will reflect access to education, by including a mix of population data, enrolment and completion rates as well as information on children and youth out of school, including those who have dropped out or never had the chance to start. But it will also use assessment data to reflect education quality and learning proficiency. In particular, the indicator will include the new data being developed by the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML). In addition, the new indicator will use a combination of different data sources, including household surveys, to reflect the equity issues raised by the SDGs.

How can we move forward?

It is feasible, as noted in a joint blog by UIS and the World Bank, in December. The breakthrough on up-grading the SDG4 indicator on learning outcomes provides a path for countries to strengthen their national assessment systems and use this data to improve learning, refine teaching approaches, and drive smarter use of resources. On learning outcomes, already about one-half of the world’s countries are participating in regional and international learning assessments. Instead of starting from scratch, the UIS, through GAML, has found a way to anchor the results of these assessments within a single database that will, at first, capture the share of pupils reaching minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics at the end of primary and lower secondary education. So while GAML is working towards producing the very first internationally comparable measures of learning, the other data – on completion, out-of-school children and more – are already being produced by the UIS.

Refining the indicator would require a number of methodological developments (some are already underway) in particular to ensure robust articulation between learning assessments data, household survey data and administrative data. These include developing a methodology to ensure correspondence between minimum proficiency levels across learning assessments and over time and using national assessments to complement comparative assessments to enable more regular reporting.

Consultation and support will be required not just to develop the indicator but to help countries report the information needed to produce it at the global level. To explore the options, the UIS is developing a paper, together with the Education Commission, for consultation with the wider education community in mid-2017.  Working with the UIS and its many education partners, we’re aiming for the launch of a flagship indicator this year. Once agreed, this flagship learning indicator can serve as a rallying call to bring the global education community together and marshal the high level political support and additional investment that is so crucial to getting all children learning in a generation.  This is a challenge, but a challenge that we relish and where a breakthrough is within our reach.

Bridget Crumpton is a Senior Adviser of the Education Commission.

Silvia Montoya is Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

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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.

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Unfinished Business in Global Education

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.

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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.

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Taming Educational Privatization

By Fazal Rizvi, the University of Melbourne, Australia.

private-schoolOver the past three decades, the idea of privatization in education has been widely embraced by countries around the world. Of course the ways in which they have translated it into policies and programs have varied greatly,[1] as indeed have been the reasons given in support of privatization. In a recent book, Antoni Verger and his colleagues (2016) describe various ways in which it has been framed and enacted in education (see earlier NORRAG blog on this). For example, Chile has pursued a drastic form of privatization, driven by deep ideological convictions, while in the United States and Australia it has taken a much more incremental form. In social-democratic welfare states, privatization has often involved public-private partnerships, while in low-income countries it has often been imposed upon them, through various structural adjustment programs.

According to Stephen Ball and Deborah Youdall (2007), privatization of schools can either be ‘exogenous’ or ‘endogenous’. Endogenous privatisation involves the importing of ideas, techniques and practices from the private sector in order to make public schools more business-like. In contrast, exogenous forms of privatization involve “the opening up of public education services to private sector participation on a for-profit basis and using the private sector to design, manage or deliver aspects of public education” (Ball & Youdall 2007, p. 5). Of course, exogenous and endogenous privatization can occur simultaneously, establishing market relations both within and across schools.

Just as forms of educational privatization vary, so do the arguments given to justify it. These arguments include the alleged monopoly and inefficiency of government services, the lack of public funds to meet the growing demand for these services, the importance of accountability and the need to give consumers a choice. Often these arguments are presented in tandem, leading governments to justify providing private operators public funding either as a direct subsidy as in the case of vouchers or through various tax deductions. The question of the extent to which public funding should complement private schools of course remains highly contested.

While educational privatization has now become embedded within the global policy space, it cannot be denied that it has also produced a range of unacceptable outcomes.  Many of these are more far-reaching than is often realized, in not only changing the nature of education but also in transforming education’s complicated relationship to social and cultural reproduction. Most notably, privatization permits the acquisition of knowledge and skills to be redefined in terms of human capital that can be exchanged in the market.

This undermines education’s traditional relationship to the public good. Privatization policies chip away at the role of education in developing and sustaining communities, building social cohesion and encouraging social solidarity. When people are encouraged primarily to look after their own economic interests, their concern for fellow human beings inevitably diminishes, eroding the very foundations of ethics. Insofar as privatization policies are predicated on the assumptions of self-interest, they risk generating unsustainable patterns of social inequality. While inequalities have always been a component of educational systems, privatization policies extend them, by institutionalizing access to various educational opportunities based on the ability to pay.

Nor does education privatization invariably improve the quality of educational provision, as is often claimed. On the contrary, recent research indicates no clear advantage in academic achievement for students attending private schools. According to Chris and Sarah Lubienski (2014), the evidence on charter schools’ effectiveness in the US is equally mixed. More disturbing however is the finding that private schools create the conditions in which social segregation is reproduced. In lower income countries, where the idea of low fees private schools has been widely championed (for example by Tooley),[2] the quality of instruction remains consistently low. A critique of many of these schools is that they don’t offer pedagogically enriching activities providing access to new technologies, science laboratories and secure environments.

In his recent book, The End of Public Schools, David Hursh (2016) has shown how privatization policies undermine democracy. He argues that public schools were created as learning communities that supported the development of trusting and caring relationships. In private schools, in contrast, where students are viewed as customers and parents as shareholders, this democratic function of education is necessarily diluted. In the end, privatization policies embody a different view of society in which individuals are encouraged to compete for scarce resources, and in which market defines the nature of social relationships.

These objections to educational privatization are compelling and therefore demand serious and thoughtful attention. At the same time, however, it cannot be denied that recent privatization initiatives have assisted greater access to education around the world, in ways that would not have been otherwise possible. Private investment in education has been helpful, for example, in realizing UNESCO’s ambitious plans for universal primary education articulated in both Education for All and MDGs. Across higher levels of education, privatization policies have helped build demand, and created the possibilities of participation for previously excluded populations.

Given the rapid rise in student demand for education around the world, an educational system that is funded exclusively through the public purse does not therefore appear any longer to be a realistic option—especially in view of the inability or disinclination of most nation-states to fund educational expansion through taxes.  Some degree of privatization thus appears inevitable. If this is so then the question is no longer whether private investors should be allowed in education, but to what extent and how should their activities be regulated, and to what end.

The global trend towards educational privatization is accompanied by some serious problems for individuals and communities who find themselves on the wrong side of social hierarchies.  The ideology of the market necessarily produces winners and losers. However, as Robert Reich (2015, p. 218) has noted, there is nothing inevitable about the market: “we need not be the victims of the market forces over which we have no control”.  Markets are based on rules that human beings create; so the questions become ‘which rules’, ‘for what purpose’ and ‘whose interest’. The coming challenge, Reich insists, is not an economic one, but that of democracy. It is not about the freedom of the market or the size of government, but how we determine what government is for and for whom.  The central choice is not between the market and the state, but around the question of how the relationship between the two should be conceptualized so that it delivers broadly based prosperity and benefits rather than delivers all the gains to a few.

In an era of expanding demand for education, few states have the resources to fund education on their own. They need the private sector to help out. The input of the private sector can bring great benefits to educational systems. However, for these benefits to reflect broadly based interests of the communities and the public good, privatization needs to be democratically controlled—to be tamed in a manner that preserves education’s traditional purposes of community building and working towards social cohesion and solidarity. In achieving this goal, the role of the nation-states cannot be allowed to ‘wither away’ against the encroaching power of the markets. Instead we need to develop rules and systems that ensure that privatization of education does not end up favouring the corrupt, the already privileged and the few, rather than everyone.

[1] Though not the focus of this blog, it is known that the private has been for decades intimately involved with the public through the phenomenon of shadow education – from Japan, to India, and from China to the UK (Blog Editor).

[2] Of course, private, English medium schools are widespread in India, West Africa etc regardless of Tooley.


Lubienski, C. & S. Lubienski (2013) The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hursh, D. (2016) The End of Public Schools: The Corporate Reform Agenda to Privatize Education, New York: Routledge

Reich, R. (2015) Saving Capitalism: For the Many Not the Few, New York: Alferd Knopf.

Verger, A., C. Fontdevila & A. Zancajo (2016) The Privatization of Education: A Political Economy and Global Education Reform, New York: Columbia University Press.

This blog entry is based on a longer paper published by UNESCO: Rizvi, F. 2016. Privatization in Education: Trends and Consequences. Education Research and Foresight Series, No. 18. Paris, UNESCO. 

Fazal Rizvi is a Professor at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, at the  University of Melbourne, Australia. Email: frizvi@unimelb.edu.au

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Outsourcing Liberia’s Education System: A New level of Absurdity in Education Provisioning

By Salim Akoojee, Independent Education and Training Analyst, South Africa and Hong Kong.

ugandaThe recent move to outsource Liberia’s education system in what has been referred to as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) is a tragedy that belies credulity. This was made all the more stark with the court judgement in Uganda (upheld by the high court in Nov. 2016 after being challenged) which required Bridge to immediately cease to operate. In a case brought by the Ministry of Education, Bridge International was not providing the necessary basic standards required of private institutions with respect to ‘teacher’s issues, quality of infrastructure, methodology and curriculum’ (see court judgement and Bridge response). Notwithstanding the substantive basis on which the judgement had been upheld, the reality of privatised, charter-type schooling for the poor is clearly considered a realistic alternative necessary for national system transformation. This blog follows earlier comment on the privatisation of the Liberian education (see David Archer, 14th Dec. 2016 and Fred van Leeuwen, 5th Dec. 2016). How privatisation has been so effectively ingrained as a legitimate alternative to public education and training provision is perhaps less than ingenious. It might be that public education is arguably so dysfunctional, both in terms of resources and ideas, that the private option is considered an effective alternative despite considerable evidence and arguments to the contrary (see challenges of privatisation elsewhere in this blog). Clearly the effective marketing undertaken by these private entities has left little space for effective resistance, which of course means that the court judgement is perhaps crucial in the quest for challenging this development. There is likely to be an increasing attention in Bridge’s activities in Kenya and other countries as a result of this.

The case of Bridge and its activities in Africa and Asia (India) provide an incisive example of what is at play. More importantly, it is reflective of what is at stake in this ideological attack on what has been, and needs to be a state-inspired public good for the benefit of the majority of its citizens.

The case of Bridge in Liberia – Implementation borrowing and public education ‘failure’

A private US company, Bridge International Academies, was granted in 2015 a contract that effectively meant that all public pre-primary and primary schools would be outsourced to it. Public funding is expected to support ‘services subcontracted’ to Bridge based in the United States.

The move can be seen as a form of policy and implementation ‘borrowing’. The story recounted by the Deputy Minister of Education of Liberia indicated that the initiative was the result of a visit to Kenya by the President and the Minister of Education. It was reported that Bridge’s nine years of experience in Africa (including their work in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria) provide them more than adequate credentials for advancing the education systems of emerging economies using private funding mechanism at the expense of real education change, necessary to enable public systems to be renewed and expanded. The Private-Public Partnership (PPP) entered into between the Liberian Government and Bridge International, amounted to USD 65 million in a five year contract intended to reach in excess of 10 million children.  The funding that formed the basis of Bridge support came from philanthropists, corporations and donors, including Bill Gates, Pierre Omidiya, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Pearson Publishing, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), and the World Bank.

So what is being offered and at what cost?

Public funding will support services subcontracted to the private, for-profit company. According to one report, “…Bridge… uses a highly structured, technology-driven model that relies on teachers reading standardized lessons from hand-held tablet computers.  Theoretically the exact same lesson would be taught in every class at the same time for the same grade.”

The drive for uniformity using a technological platform exclusively while important is unlikely to be consistent with education provisioning for a developing context unlikely to have the capacity for sustaining it. Perhaps more worrying is that the initiative will also cost the parents what they can hardly afford; $5-7 a month, excluding school meals. It promises a ‘private’, ‘quality’ education that will afford learners greater teacher support, learning materials and which is designed to bring the benefit of technology.

Singing their praises

We should therefore not be surprised that the World Bank has supported this process, this time within a partnership with an international multinational tech giant – Facebook who have funded the initiative with a $10 million grant. Notwithstanding the extensive anti-privatisation discourse and with little evidence of its track record, some international players have rallied to support the initiative. The accolades showered on Bridge in particular by the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, is suggestive of the wider implications of this experiment. At a speech delivered on April, 7th 2016: “Ending Extreme Poverty by 2030: The Final Push”, the World Bank President was quoted as saying:

We know that using new technology can help transform educational outcomes. For example, Bridge International Academies uses (sic) software and tablets in schools that teach over 100,000 students in Kenya and Uganda. After about two years, students’ average scores for reading and math have risen high above their public school peers. The cost per student at Bridge Academies is just $6 dollars a month.

The fact that this statement comes even before the evidence is provided suggests that we might need a consistent and constant international fact-checking mechanism to ensure that the rhetoric does not take on a bizarre reality. The independent research that underpins these pronouncements is still awaited according to at least one source (ESCR).[1]

The indictment

The situation is exacerbated by the reality that this experiment is being done in one of the most vulnerable contexts in the globe. The nation has been traumatised by a 14 year bloody civil war and further traumatised by an Ebola epidemic, and is clearly vulnerable to various experiments parading as a solution. The  ethical and moral questions that still need to be answered in implementing this experiment in this impoverished context are perhaps less than ingenious.

Despite the quite robust internal opposition (protests by teacher unions and considerable dissenting professional voices), and vociferous consternation by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education has been ignored. The move contradicts principles of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 of free education just agreed in 2015. The latest court rulings are an important initial victory for those calling for the situation to be reviewed, but the company has indicated that it will challenge the decision.

[1] ESCR-Net Members —over 270 social movements, NGOs and advocates across 70 countries— “seek to build a global movement to make human rights and social justice a reality for all.” See https://www.escr-net.org/about/who-we-are

Salim Akoojee (PhD), Independent Education and Training Analyst, South Africa and Hong Kong. Email: salimakoojee@live.co.za

Views and opinions expressed in blogs are those of the authors and are not intended to represent the view of all NORRAG members or the NORRAG secretariat.

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The Education Commission Report: Will We Achieve EFA and the Education SDG?

By Steven J. Klees, University of Maryland[1]

viet-namThe International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, aka the Education Commission, recently engaged in an extraordinary process to produce an unusual report entitled The Learning Generation: Investing in Education for a Changing World.  The Education Commission Report (ECR) is the product of a year-long intensive team effort, 172 pages in length, with 411 footnotes, supported by over 60 background research papers. The Commission was convened by the Director-General of UNESCO and the heads of state of Chile, Indonesia, Malawi, and Norway and supported by the U.N. Secretary-General. The Commission’s members “are current and former heads of state and government, government ministers, five Nobel laureates, and leaders in the fields of education, business, economics, health, and security” (ECR, 6). Initially funded for a one-year effort, funding for a second year was secured, and the 27 Commissioners have agreed to stay on and advocate for the Report recommendations.

The ECR promotes major global changes in almost all aspects of education. There is much to commend in the report, including its comprehensiveness, research-base, wealth of examples, good intentions, and herculean efforts. However, in what follows, I will briefly discuss four very significant problems (also see Global Campaign for Education, 2016; Stromquist, forthcoming).

Reneging on the SDG Promise

Perhaps most astonishing is that the ECR gives up on achieving many of the education SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) promises before we have even started trying to fulfil them!  The goal of 2030 is unceremoniously moved to 2040, arguing that a full generation—defined as 25 years—is needed to achieve the “learning generation.” And even in 2040, not all will be achieved: “Following the Commission’s Learning Generation pathway, in 2030 [only] 62 per cent of girls and boys in low-income countries will complete secondary school…[and] [i]n 2040, [only] 83 per cent will complete” (40). The ECR operationalizes learning goals that are left undefined in the SDG targets. But the projections of learning are more dismal, even if all the ECR recommendations are enacted. While the ECR envisions nearly 100% primary school completion by 2030, it points out that only “68 per cent will achieve learning benchmarks” (40).  And we will not even have universal secondary school completion by 2040.  These projections, of course, depend on an array of assumptions.  I think it was a mistake for the Commission not to consider what it would take to achieve all the education SDG targets by 2030.  I don’t think the education SDG should be abandoned or postponed already!

Improving the Performance of Education Systems

Many of the ECR’s recommendations are directed towards improving the effectiveness and efficiency of education.  I found many of them problematic.  First, there was an overemphasis on international and national testing of a very narrow slice of cognitive skills, chiefly reading.  This will be a boon to testing companies and will likely shift attention away from other important educational outcomes as happened in the U.S. under No Child Left Behind.  Second, the ECR purports to show the relative cost-effectiveness of 20 “best-proven…practices to improve learning” (57), such as computer-assisted instruction, ability grouping, performance incentives, and community-based monitoring.  This is giving bad advice using bad data.  We do not agree on the costs or the effects of these reforms – certainly not at a global level, but also not at national or even local levels.  Best practice is hotly debated, and there are no blueprints.  Moreover, many of the practices are essential rights and should not be implemented based on their cost-effectiveness, such as mother tongue instruction, providing water and washrooms, malaria control, or even school feeding.

Another troubling major recommendation from the ECR to improve the performance of education systems is the widespread use of computer technologies (76-81). The Commission wants every school online by 2030, believing that technology can improve learning and lower costs. I believe internet access is a great educational tool and desirable for many reasons, but there is little evidence that it will increase learning, even in the narrow cognitive sense. And it is a costly add-on. The only way it can reduce costs is by increasing the pupil-teacher ratio and class size which will impede the attainment of broader learning dimensions in primary and secondary education.

A basic problem with the ECR and other recent efforts to improve education is their unremitting focus on so-called “results.” The endless emphasis here and elsewhere on “results-based” financing is detrimental to good education. First, again, “results” are defined narrowly in terms of a few measures of cognitive achievement and, second, there is a need to balance attention to outcomes with attention to inputs. Good schools, “child-friendly schools” require attention to well-educated teachers, good curriculum, adequate supplies of high-quality learning materials, facilities conducive to learning, child-centred teaching and more. In the rush to focus on “learning,” attention to critical inputs is being ignored.

How to Finance EFA and the SDGs

Finance was the central issue of the Commission’s effort, and lack of finance has perhaps been the most significant obstacle to achieving EFA (Education for All) and the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) in past decades.  The ECR projects that while most of the financing needed can come from the countries themselves, there will still need to be substantial international assistance; specifically, external funding will have to rise from $16 billion/year today to $89 billion/year in 2030.  I find the Commission analysis here vague, unrealistic, and perhaps even dangerous.  I think it unrealistic to expect “philanthropists, corporations, and charitable organizations” (114) to contribute $20 billion/year by 2030.  Moreover, whatever they do contribute will continue to be as uncoordinated, self-interested, and misdirected as it is now (van Fleet, 2012).

The Commission also relies heavily on a new coordinated Multilateral Development Bank (MDB) initiative – combining the World Bank and the regional development banks – that would increase their funding for education from $3.5 billion today to $20 billion a year by 2030.  I doubt that the Banks will be able or willing to leverage all those additional resources for education. But more than that, the World Bank – and the regional development banks – have been ideological institutions, not at all evidence-based as they claim.  To the contrary, for over 30 years they have been committed to a set of neoliberal education reforms (Klees, Samoff, and Stromquist, 2012). This World Bank-on-steroids-MDB-proposal turns over education reform to the vagaries of Bank ideology.  If this proposal were to come to pass, the MDBs would be the biggest players in education, mobilizing 5 times more resources than GPE (the Global Partnership for Education), which will be relegated to the position of a peripheral actor.

The ECR ignores two solutions to the lack of finance.  First, for some reason, they decided to let wealthy countries off-the-hook.  It is unfortunate that the Commission argued that only 0.5% of GNI need go to ODA instead of the 0.7% agreed on long ago. If the international community lived up to its stated commitment, we would not have to renege on the SDG targets.  Second, the ECR basically ignored one of its own background papers that argued that all 17 of the SDGs could be financed if we developed global mechanisms to tax corporations fairly, wealthy individuals and financial transactions (Cobham and Klees, 2016; Klees, 2017).

Social Transformation

In the ECR, as in many reports, education often seems like it is a miracle cure for the ills of the world. While I am a firm believer in the value of education, education is far from a panacea.

The report spends no time examining why EFA and the MDGs have failed, nor why, longer term, more than 50 years of promises by the international community of universal primary education and broader development goals have borne such little fruit. As I (and many others) have elaborated elsewhere, neoliberal capitalism, underpinned by patriarchal, racist, and other structures, is not conducive to achieving broad education or development goals (Klees, forthcoming(a)).  Despite good intentions, EFA and the MDGs have not been serious efforts; relatively few resources have been devoted to them, and none of these efforts challenge the dysfunctional structures in which they are embedded.  EFA, the MDGs, and the SDGs, serve mostly to legitimate an extremely unequal world system by promising changes which are not forthcoming, helping to justify a system in which literally billions of people are relegated to a marginalized existence.

We need to transform neoliberal capitalism if we wish to fulfil the education and other SDGs. Among other things, neoliberalism has exalted the private sector, and it is treated as a key partner in the education and development effort (ECR, 81-86). In a past life, I went to Stanford Business School. There, I had a professor who wrote a paper entitled, “The Social Responsibility of Business and Other Pollutants of the Air.” He was pro-business; his point was that the business of business was business, and we shouldn’t want or expect them to help solve problems that are fundamentally government’s. Business should not be a partner, should not be at the advice or governance table, should not be a part of the Global Partnership for Education, for instance. Whether the transformation of neoliberal capitalism means a return to a more liberal welfare state or a more radical change based on more participatory approaches to governance and more democratic approaches to the workplace remains to be seen (Klees, forthcoming(a)). However, without such a transformation, the SDGs will remain more of a dream than reality (Bond, 2015; Hickel, 2015).


Gordon Brown, in his preface to the ECR states: “We cannot accept another year or decade like this” (2). But the report does and we do.  The ECR talks of the lives that can be saved if we meet the SDGs. What about all the lives that will be lost if we wait until 2030, or 2040, or longer, to achieve education and the other SDGs? Right now we live with global triage, saving some lives while letting so many die or barely survive due to situations we can remedy.  Right now, international aid is basically charity, dependent on the self-interested whims of the wealthy.  This must change.  Sharing this planet’s wealth more equitably and treating the Earth with the respect required for our own survival are essential.  My fear is that without major social changes, we will get to 2030 with neither the education SDG nor the other SDGs fulfilled. My hope is that, around the world, this is more widely recognized than ever before, and there are more advocates than ever before for the types of transformations that we need to live equitably, well, and peacefully on our severely-threatened planet. We need to use the Commission’s Report and the SDGs themselves as an impetus for a broader, participatory discussion of needed educational and societal changes.

[1] This is taken from a review essay looking at the Education Commission Report and UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report that will be published in the May issue of the Comparative Education Review (Klees, forthcoming(b)).


Cobham, Alex with Steven Klees. 2016. “Global Taxation: Financing Education and the Other SDGs,” Background Paper for the Education Commission.

Klees, Steven. forthcoming(a). “Capitalism and Education: Some Reflections,” Policy Futures in Education.

Klees, Steven. forthcoming(b). “Will We Achieve EFA and the Education SDG?,” Comparative Education Review.

Klees, Steven, Joel Samoff, and Nelly Stromquist, eds. 2012. World Bank and Education: Critiques and Alternatives. Rotterdam: Sense.

Stromquist, Nelly. forthcoming. “Review of The Learning Generation,” Comparative Education Review.

van Fleet, Justin. 2012. “A disconnect between motivations and education needs: Why American corporate philanthropy alone will not educate the most marginalized.” In S. Robertson, A. Verger and K. Mundy (Eds.), Public Private Partnerships in Education. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Steven Klees is professor of International Education Policy at the University of Maryland.  His email is sklees@umd.edu.

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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. 

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Transversal Competencies and their Assessment: Perspectives from the Asia-Pacific

By Ramya Vivekanandan, UNESCO Bangkok.

transversal-comp-circleIn today’s world, there is a growing sense that the real purpose of education is not only to produce learners who are literate and numerate.  Instead, the complex times in which we live make additional, more crucial demands on our education systems: that they facilitate the holistic development of our young people such that they are creative, resourceful, self-disciplined, adept at collaborating with others, appreciative of diversity, able to resolve conflicts and contribute peacefully to democratic societies.

Some people refer to these as “21st century”, “transferable” or “socio-emotional” skills. Through ongoing research undertaken by the Education Research Institutes Network in the Asia-Pacific (ERI-Net), UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education (UNESCO Bangkok) adopted the term “transversal competencies” to refer to these skills and competencies, as per the following framework:


What are transversal competencies? (click image to enlarge)

The idea that education should contribute to such outcomes is not new. What is notable now is the policy importance that countries across the socioeconomic spectrum have placed upon orienting their education systems to develop these competencies in their students. The idea is even enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goal 4/Education 2030 agenda, notably in its Target 4.7, which commits the international community to “By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

Through the ERI-Net research and other work, it has become clear that a number of countries have reflected the importance of the transversal competencies in their education policies and plans. Many have explicitly integrated the teaching of these areas in different areas of their national or local curricula, while others have worked to ensure that the initial preparation of teachers and their ongoing professional development include focus on these dimensions. What is less clear is the extent to which these competencies are or can be assessed. How can a teacher, for example, evaluate the degree to which a student is empathetic or compassionate? Can examinations and other “tests” actually measure abstract areas such as creativity or entrepreneurship, in ways that are valid and reliable? Are there successful examples of how this has been done?

UNESCO Bangkok, in its capacity as Secretariat of the Network on Education Quality Monitoring in the Asia-Pacific (NEQMAP), recently published Assessment of Transversal Competencies: Policy and Practice in the Asia-Pacific Region in the aim of understanding more about these questions and how some countries are trying to answer them.

assess-trans-comp-cover is a regional network focused on supporting countries of the Asia-Pacific to strengthen their systems of student learning assessment. The network counts 41 members across 24 countries to date and focuses on research, knowledge sharing and capacity development. The study on assessment of transversal competencies was conducted under the auspices of NEQMAP and was authored by Dr. Esther Care of the Brookings Institution and Dr. Rebekah Luo of the University of Melbourne. It focused on the following four questions:

  • Is assessment of transversal competencies reflected in policies, plans, legislation, curriculum guidelines, or national assessment frameworks?
  • Are transversal competencies being assessed at school and/or system level?
  • What are the challenges of assessing transversal competencies at school?
  • What are the recommendations for initiating or improving assessment of transversal competencies?

Focusing on nine countries/jurisdictions of the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, Hong Kong (China), India, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Thailand, Viet Nam), the study found that the assessment of transversal competencies is definitely being considered by policymakers across the countries. Some have explored how such assessment can be concretely implemented but have faced a number of challenges, including integration of transversal competencies in curriculum and teaching in general, unclear guidance as to how to operationalize systematic vision about assessing these areas at the school level and lack of professional development and support for teachers to guide them in this process. There is also a dearth of knowledge of and access to appropriate assessment tools in regard to these domains.

The nine case studies revealed a great deal of diversity across the region but common calls for more professional development and the development of tools for the assessment of transversal competencies. UNESCO Bangkok, through NEQMAP, will continue to work in this area and explore the topic, focusing a next phase of research on a more concrete understanding of how schools and education systems can assess competencies such as integrity, respect for the environment, civic participation and the other areas which are so crucial for today’s young people to master.

How does your country or organization approach the assessment of transversal competencies in education? Please share with us notable practices and innovations in this area!

Ramya Vivekanandan is Programme Specialist and leader of the team on Quality of Education at UNESCO Bangkok. In this capacity, she also serves as Head of the NEQMAP Secretariat. She can be reached at r(dot)vivekanandan(at)unesco(dot)org.

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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.


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Financing Education and All the Other SDGs: Global Taxation is Needed

By Steven J. Klees, University of Maryland.


NORRAG NEWS 54 on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?” in now online.

The failure to achieve Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals is liable to be repeated with the Sustainable Development Goals.  At present, we rely on the vagaries of self-interest in the Global North to finance the development gap in the Global South.  This charity model must be replaced by enforceable global taxation.

None of the Education for All (EFA) goals nor the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were achieved by 2015.[1] The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have expanded the EFA and MDG targets and moved the goal-post to 2030. While some argue that we are making progress and that the SDGs represent an enhanced commitment by the international community, I am afraid that the commitment is not there and that we will get to 2030 with none of the goals achieved yet again.

The biggest problem has been and continues to be an unwillingness by the international community to put in the resources required.  It is estimated that an additional $39 billion is needed each year to meet just some of the principal SDG education targets. The Global Partnership for Education (GPE), the big multilateral effort to finance the EFA shortfall, has only been able to come up with $0.5 billion a year; so 80 times more resources are needed!  Moreover, the education SDG is competing with 16 other SDGs. The additional financial requirement for achieving all the SDGs is estimated at $1.4 trillion annually overall. The most optimistic assessments of the potential for domestic revenue mobilization to contribute still leave a gap of $150 billion each year – and that is likely to be a significant underestimate.

A major reason that this shortfall has continued and is likely to continue is that the world is relying on the charity of the Global North to fill the gap in the Global South.  Contributions are completely voluntary.  Every three years GPE begs for “pledges” to fill its coffers.  Overseas Development Aid (ODA) rests on the whims of donor countries.  International agreements, like that made at the U.N. in 1970, set a voluntary goal of rich nations contributing 0.7% of GDP for ODA.  Despite repeated exhortations and renewed “commitments” to it, only a handful of countries reach this 0.7% target and most fall far short. The U.S. spends about 0.13% of its GDP on ODA, less than one-fifth of what has been promised.[2]

One answer to this challenge is to stop relying on global charity – which too often these days is also the neoliberal response within nations trying to fund domestic social services.  What is needed is global taxation, some of which can be implemented within existing national tax structures and some of which need new global structures.  Working with ActionAid International and Oxfam International, I helped put together a background paper on this topic for the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, aka the Education Commission.  Its principal author, Alex Cobham of the Tax Justice Network, and I examined the potential of corporate taxation, a tax on individual wealth,[3] and a financial transaction tax to not only finance the education deficit but all of the SDGs (Cobham and Klees, 2016).

Our report considers both global reforms to support domestic taxes, and globally-levied taxes. Of the former, reforms can help to address the major losses due to international tax evasion and avoidance. Globally, revenue losses due to multinational corporate tax manipulation are estimated at or above $600 billion annually. Revenue losses on income taxes due to undeclared offshore wealth, meanwhile, are estimated to approach $200 billion. Progress in these two areas – which will depend in large part on global counter-measures – can make a vital contribution to closing the domestic revenue gap.

Of globally-levied taxes, a financial wealth tax, as suggested by Thomas Piketty, has major revenue potential. Levied at 0.01% annually, revenues could cover the estimated requirement for additional public financing of all the SDGs. Levied instead at 1%, revenues might plug the entire incremental financing gap.  A global financial transactions tax could potentially contribute revenues in a range of $60 billion to $360 billion. In each case, international measures to ensure greater transparency could alternatively support the levying of such taxes at the national level.

There are technical and economic problems that must be faced in moving ODA from a charity-base to a tax-base but these can be resolved.  The biggest barriers are political.  For example, OECD has been working on corporate tax reform, but their scope is much less far-reaching than what is needed.  Politically, what is needed is shifting that effort to the U.N. and expanding it.  An appropriately resourced and fully representative, intergovernmental U.N. – based tax body was a central demand of the G77 group of developing countries, and of many civil society organizations from the Global South and North, at the Addis Financing for Development summit in July 2015. Unfortunately, this effort was blocked in Addis by a number of OECD governments.  The establishment of such a body at the U.N. was a key recommendation of our report to the Commission.  Unfortunately, the Commissioners chose not to re-visit the Addis debate.  Nonetheless, the idea still has broad support and momentum; the new chair of the G77 is very much in favour and has made it a priority.

Charity cannot and should not be relied upon to meet the needs of public policy as manifested in the SDGs, as well as in national goals.  Relying on charity, as we have historically, is an abrogation of our collective social responsibilities.  If we want to ensure that the SDGs will not be mostly empty promises, the international community must make an enforceable commitment to put its money where its mouth is.

[1] While some claim that the MDG of cutting extreme poverty in half was met by 2015, this is only true if one continues to use the absurd, outdated, low-ball cutoff of $1.25/day.

[2] It is worth noting that in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as a result of the Marshall Plan, the U.S. was spending as much as 3% of its GDP on ODA in order to help war-torn Europe.  Such an effort is not on the table today.

[3] A tax on individual wealth is made urgent by what I can only call obscene statistics.  Oxfam (2016) reports that the richest 1% own more wealth than the rest of the world combined and that 62 billionaires own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, 3.6 billion people.

Further reading

Cobham, A. with Klees, S. (2016). Global Taxation: Financing Education and the Other SDGs Background Paper for the Education Commission.

Steven J. Klees, University of Maryland. Email: sklees@umd.edu

This blog reproduces an article in the new issue of NORRAG NEWS, NN54, on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?”.

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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. 

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