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I’ve just spent two days at the Global Education and Skills Forum, billed as a ‘Davos for Education’, and organised with rigour and panache by the Varkey Gems Foundation. I participated on a hunch that the RSA might have something to contribute to this agenda.  If William Shipley and other founders came back to the RSA now, they’d be surprised by many things: the still-fantastic condition of our House; the global penetration of our RSA Animates; the price of our coffee. I think they would also be surprised by our lack of engagement around international development generally, and education in particular. The issues being faced by education systems (and the term ‘system’ is a euphemism in many states) around the world can put some of the UK issues we grapple with in their petty, parochial shade.

Blair photo cut

The recent Education for All Global Monitoring Report showed how, despite progress on access over the last decade, 100 million children of primary age are still not in school, and a further 150 million children leave primary school unable to read, write or count. The annual cost of this failure is estimated at £129bn. All six 2015 'Education for All' goals will be missed. If trends continue, it will take until 2086 before universal primary education for girls becomes a reality. Our own Department for International Development last year published an excellent position paper, reaffirming the UK’s commitment to ‘providing global leadership on delivering value for money, developing new partnerships across the public–private spectrum, using new technology and building evidence on new approaches and aid modalities with partner governments.

Because of significant progress on goals around famine relief, malnourishment and broader health crises, the focus on global education goals is growing. The ‘poster children’ for the development world are now less likely to be starving children than pupils in very cramped classrooms, or being taught outside with minimal resources.  However, according to figures released by Gems, businesses and foundations donate approximately sixteen times more to health than to education. The new ‘business backs education’ campaign is calling for all businesses to increase the share of their CSR spend on education to 20%.

In a context which is both changing rapidly and hitting frustrating buffers, a total antipathy to the private sector is almost impossible to sustain. The demand for learning is such that private, ‘pay at the point of use’ options are an inevitable and, when of good quality, welcome part of the ecology. Without such input, the so-called ‘demographic dividend’ is more likely to be a demographic disaster of young people entering the labour market with very limited skills and motivations. At the moment, it’s a blurred and occasionally messy mix between pure private provision (high and low cost), NGO provision and support, and publicly funded and delivered schools. Different actors will inevitably be bumping into each other in the field, although any inefficiencies caused by duplicating effort may be offset by a curiously competitive climate. In many ways, global education in developing countries looks similar to England’s mixed economy of early year provision. As Bill Clinton’s speech highlighted.

 "It is projected that by 2050 that 86 percent of the world's children will be living in what are now developing countries. There is no way that governments alone or international aid flows alone will be able to provide those children with the quality of education they need to be full participants in global society. This is especially relevant for women and girls."

To maximise the impact of this mixed economy, it might be wise for governments to move further and faster to a commissioning function, minimising any delivery responsibilities. This would include the commissioning of high quality training and professional development, using the potential of blended learning (including MOOCs for teacher training), as well as being highly informed, evidence-based commissioners of ICT solutions that could improve outcomes whilst reducing costs. Government should also see themselves as ‘champions of parents’,  developing simple and strong accountability systems to empower parents about the quality of choices available, and speaking up for the interests of the most vulnerable families, those ‘high hanging fruit’ that the private sector may never reach out and up to. NGOs, especially the larger global actors, may need to change their attitudes and approaches to working with for-profits, who are sometimes portrayed by NGOs as maybe-necessary and hopefully-temporary evils.

Amidst the justified rush to get as many children in school and learning for as long as possible, it’s worth reflecting on the challenges that education systems such as England’s, with over 150 years’ experience of free universal education, have struggled to solve, and if anything are more entrenched than ever. Here is my cut of five perpetual problems for virtually every developed education system, regardless of PISA league table ranking.

1.       Low equity, high inequality   Despite occasional progress, universal education has largely reinforced rather than broken down existing     social inequalities

2.      An artificial divide between academic and vocational learning, and between school and work   All systems (yes Germany, you too) have struggled to create parity of esteem between academic and vocational education pathways. A rising ‘school leaving age’ may have   inadvertently created new firewalls between the worlds of school and work.

 3.       Low teacher agency and self-efficacy   The overwhelming policy dynamic, whether led by national governments, local authorities or other intermediaries, has cast teachers as victims rather than agents of change.

 4.       Increasing teenage disengagement   OECD data shows that teenagers, including the growing number of students who are ‘successful’ in terms of exam results, are increasingly disengaged from and motivated by the process of schooling.

 5.       Minimal arts provision   In every system across the world, arts and cultural learning appears to be at best permanently vulnerable to reductions in provision, and at worst marginalised from schools’ curricula and childrens' lives.

If, as a country or state, you are struggling to build enough schools, ensure children learn anything when they are at school, prevent early drop-outs, especially amongst girls, or get teachers better trained or simply turning up to teach more regularly, these five issues may feel like peripheral luxuries. Yet it’s in building the foundations for a universal education system that cultures and norms are established. Developing countries have opportunities to shape new blended delivery structures for education: between private, public and voluntary provision; between teachers, parents pupils and other citizens; between online and face to face teaching and learning; and perhaps above all, between the worlds of school and work. This is less ‘creative destruction’, and more creative commissioning, mixing the most appropriate solutions which might lead to far more effective protection against the holes that we developed nations keep on digging, and far more scope for enabling teachers to lead education change processes.  It’s hard to predict the model which might replace what Ken Robinson famously termed our ‘industrial model’ of schooling, but it may well emerge from the developing world who are less burdened by the baggage of a hundred years of universal education.

Whether anything will ever change any education system’s approach to arts learning is another matter, but that’s for another blog, and a possible RSA project.  For the moment, I’ll give the last word to my favourite speaker from the event, Mary Joy Pigozzi from Educate a Child:

Ultimately, it is a country's citizens that own its education system'.

Joe Hallgarten is Director of Education at the RSA. Follow him @joehallg


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