Making the “Learning Generation” a Reality: Let’s Act on the Education Commission Report

By Baela Raza Jamil, Commissioner for the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (The Education Commission)

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Gulalai Ahmadzai, just short of her 10th birthday and travelling a long distance in a convoy from South Waziristan near the Afghan border to Gadap near the Arabian Sea in the city of Karachi, looks bewildered. Her family migrated in haste travelling from north to south Pakistan, fleeing protracted violence borne out of the ‘war against terror’. In Gadap, the language is different as are the customs. Filled with worries and anxieties, Gulalai is wondering what the future holds. Will she be able to resume her studies? Will she be relegated as a refugee and, in turn, excluded from school and join the ranks of some 61 million out-of-school children worldwide? Or will child marriage await her?

In fact, Gulalai is one of the lucky ones as a new government school is under construction nearby her new home. Here she can enroll at a school that will provide 12 years of education. But will there be a teacher who can speak to her in her mother tongue? She wonders about her communication challenges not knowing Urdu or Sindhi; her forehead breaks into anxious lines only to be quickly replaced by a smile as she realizes her learning will go uninterrupted.

About 400 kilometers away, in Northern Sindh, lives Shama. She is 12 years old and a 6th grade drop-out. Due to the lack of an all-girls school in her area, she was forced stay at home performing household chores and spending her rare spare time making intricate embroideries and ‘rilli’ (patchwork) spreads. However, thanks to local community activists, she, along with her mother has been attending a course organized through a partnership between INTEL, USAID, and Education and Literacy Department of Sindh that offers 30 hours of free ICTs training to in-school children and out-of-school adolescents and adults, especially girls and women. This program will reach 9,000 beneficiaries. Unbelievably, the mother-daughter duo can access the internet, create an email, search designs for their embroideries and Shama has also completed a PowerPoint presentation!

Innovations like these turn despair into hope and exclusion into inclusion for girls like Gulalai and Shama. In a province that has some of the most challenging enrollment indicators with the out-of-school gender gap stagnant at 52% among 6-16 year old girls compared to 48% for boys (ASER 2015), Sindh is making strides in mainstream innovations of high quality infrastructure ICT training. However, learning challenges persist as 45% of grade 5 children know only grade 2 level reading in Sindhi/Urdu, 24% know English with some comprehension and 35% can cope with two digit division. For Shama in rural Sindh, she is 6-7% behind her male counterparts in learning scores. Gender exclusions and wealth inequality further exacerbate these gaps.

As a Commissioner on the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, I have been deeply engaged in developing an agenda for action to identify credible pathways for ways to achieve the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) agreed by UN Member States. Indeed, this goal powerfully states that by 2030 the world must “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

Seeing as the way young people today learn and communicate has changed drastically over the last 15 years, the education systems must adapt and use technological advancements to its advantage. Government, civil society and the private sector need to invest in research and development to foster innovation across education systems, identify the opportunities offered by technology and understand how children learn, so that we can help them develop relevant skills required for succeeding in the world of 2050 and beyond. The Education Commission believes solutions for learning and access with equity can be achieved within a generation through innovations combining technology, workforce and partnerships as well as through inclusive approaches and robust financing.

Whilst Gulalai is helping close the gender/enrolment gap of merely 6% out of school children in urban Karachi (Malir), Shama is demonstrating that the right to education for 5-16 year olds can be managed by leapfrogging learning assisted by technologies. Since both are public sector initiatives, these can be scaled up province-wide if there is political will. By investing to bring educational opportunity in line with the top 25% of fastest improving countries, the Commission makes clear that this capital will yield considerable long-term dividends as every school – at least middle and high school/colleges – can be the source of a “Learning Generation.”

It is reassuring to see that the annual development budget for education for 2016-17 in Sindh is focused on SDG4 placing Early Childhood Education (ECE), Primary, Middle/ Secondary, Colleges, Higher Education, Special Education and TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) together. It augurs hope for collaborative planning across sub-sectors and departments. In Sindh, as elsewhere, the department of school/education covers ECE up to grade XII with separate departments for Higher Education, Special Education, TVET and sometimes non-formal/literacy too. We need more space for planning jointly and seamlessly for lifelong learning as a core aspiration of SDG4. The chronically underspent recurrent education budgets earmarked for quality, school based, improvement grants, innovations and infrastructure must be reversed, just as the low domestic financing for education in Pakistan must end.

Why can’t millions of children, such as Gulalai, Shama and her mother, also take advantage of schools offering seamless transitions from ECE to secondary and beyond; or use the schools as community learning centers for 21st century skills? The answer is not a mystery. In Vietnam priority for quality education with outcomes demanded that educational spending increased from 7% of the national budget in 1986 to 20% in 2008 – or 5.3 % of GDP! Perhaps, the tipping point in Vietnam was when both parents and the state stood on the same platform, firm believers in the mantra of education and learning from early childhood to the tertiary level. In Pakistan, where provinces are completely devolved, lessons from Vietnam could be emulated.  We can achieve a ‘Learning Generation’ by boldly embracing innovative financing to meet high learning and system outcomes.

The upcoming fiscal year is a promising one for the Sindh Government. With RS. 2 billion (approx. US$200 million) allocated to public-private partnerships and innovative initiatives, and an unprecedented RS. 200 million (approx. US$20 million) for ECE, Sindh for the first time, is showing its commitment to improvements in education. But will this get spent; will there be cross-sectoral initiatives – for example health-related, to bring down the chronic malnutrition and stunting of almost 50% for the little ones? The time to start this conversation is now. As the Education Commission reports just ahead of the opening of the UN General Assembly on 18th September 2016, and the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon receives our agenda for action, we will need individual countries to act on our blueprint for a world at school and to become pioneers for making the “Learning Generation” a reality.

Baela Raza Jamil (adviser trustee Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi /ITA, Pakistan) serves as a Commissioner for the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (The Education Commission). The Education Commission is engaging world leaders, policymakers, and researchers to develop a renewed and compelling investment case and financing pathway for achieving equal educational opportunity for children and young people. Baela Raza Jamil can be reached at email: itacec@gmail.com

 

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