Unfinished Business: We have achieved a great deal for global education, but there is much more to be done

March 10, 2017Nicholas Burnett

This article was originally posted on the R4D blog, Unlocking Solutions.

Today I step down from managing R4D’s Global Education program to become a senior fellow with the organization and to seek also other opportunities to serve global education, including continuing to chair the Governing Board of UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP).

I step down proud of what we have accomplished at R4D, inspired by the strong team of professionals that I have assembled, and excited to welcome my successor, Amy Black. But I am also sad that there is still so much unfinished international education business.

In the last seven years, we have:

  • Led the way with new analyses about the negative economic impacts and other losses that result from children being out of school and of the consequent adult illiteracy;
  • Contributed to thinking about how to cost their enrollment;
  • Raised important questions about the impact of citizen learning assessments;
  • Piloted a new type of real-time, rapid-feedback design testing called adaptive learning;
  • Started to move towards a better understanding of how early childhood development (ECD) is and should be financed.

Despite our modest R4D contributions, despite thousands of contributions from others, despite more people enrolled in education than ever before, 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.

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

As someone who has proudly held management positions at the World Bank, the 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.

education goals development end financing dropout international development learning schools

 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.

3. 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.

4. Innovative financing and 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. I shall in future continue to work on all of these, both with R4D and on my own; global education will not be in good shape until this unfinished business is resolved.


Nicholas Burnett is a Senior Fellow at Results for Development (R4D) in Washington DC, a Special Professor of International Education at Nottingham University, chair of the Board of UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning, and on the NORRAG Consultative Committee, the Advisory Board of the Global Business School Network and the Board of Americans for UNESCO.  As R4D's founding Managing Director for Global Education, he ran R4D’s education program until February 2017, a period in which the organization grew tenfold and along with its partners, delivered large-scale, lasting results to help people in low- and middle-income countries live more prosperous lives.

Photo credits (top to bottom): Mohammad Al-Arief/The World Bank ; Nhaka Foundation

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