Articles from 2012/13


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Overview: Bridging the education gap

Dr Sylvia Anie

Director, Social Transformation Programmes Division (STPD), Commonwealth Secretariat



The deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is fast approaching. Much progress has been made. Yet in 16 Commonwealth countries, people cannot expect to live more than 60 years. In 17 countries, children receive fewer than 6 years of education. And in only 10 of the 54 countries of the Commonwealth aremorethan a quarter of Members of Parliament women. Solutions to address these challenges rely on an appreciation of the gaps that exist in the how, where, whoand whenaspects in delivering education.

Equally essential is our understanding of the interplay between culture, societal norms and economic status.

The appointment of David Cameron as one of the co-chairs of the UN High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons tasked with establishing a set of post-Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to follow the present goals, which expire in 2015, has prompted discussion about which development priorities will be reflected in the successors to the MDGs. (For a discussion of education for growth and employment, see articles by Nasir Kazmi and Law Song Seng in Chapter 7.) This reflects current thinking in some development circles that, as the education MDGs are considered by some to be the closest to being met, when the time comes for a review of the MDGs there is a significant risk that education will no longer be seen as a priority. If education does not figure highly on the postMDG development agenda, it is likely that funding will suffer a correlative fall. And one of the potential outcomes of this might be that children who entered school as a result of efforts to meet the MDGs might no longer be able to stay in school (See Nicholas Burnett, Steve Packer and others.)

Gains and losses since Dakar

The Commonwealth’s commitment to work with and support member countries in the achievement of universal primary education should remain steadfast, as while many members have made enormous gains in education access and quality, numerous challenges remain. Globally, over 67 million primaryschool-age children are out of school. Of these, 42 per cent are in Commonwealth countries, and of these 28,337,300 children, 56 per cent are girls 1. In 16 Commonwealth countries, more than a quarter of the population cannot read or write. (See Luis Crouch for an overview of country indicators and the Global Partnership for Education.)

The theme of the 18th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers (Mauritius, August 2012) is ‘Education in the Commonwealth: Bridging the gap as we accelerate towards achieving the internationally agreed goals’. The closer we get to universal primary education, the harder it is to actually achieve and sustain. While universal primary education has benefited many children, it has not benefited the most difficult to reach. These include the very poorest children, those in conflict situations, those with special learning needs or disabilities, or those from highly marginalised groups. (See contribution by Jyotsna Jha, and the diverse issues raised in Chapter 5, ‘Inclusive education and human rights’.) Many countries may have progressed in the enrolment of students, but they have not improved the quality of teaching and learning, or the mechanisms or structures by which education is delivered. This has created tremendous pressures on education systems as a whole, and has jeopardised the level and quality of education that children are receiving.


What is ‘the gap’?

There are many gaps: the gap between countries and communities with high and low access rates; the gap between access and quality; the gap between what a child can rightfully expect and what a country is able to deliver; and, increasingly, the technology gap: the digital divide. With the ever-looming deadline of 2015, countries are taking stock of their achievements, and donor agencies/countries are reviewing whether they have had value for money, and whether the development goals should change to focus on economics rather than education. It is therefore imperative that we do not lose sight of the goal and what was the initial intent of the 2000 Dakar Agreement – ‘the betterment of people’s lives’ through education. It is also important that we keep in mind that 2015 does not represent the end of the road for education challenges; it is, in fact, only the start.

The Internationally Agreed Goals (IAGs), including the MDGs and the Education for All goals adopted in Dakar, were envisaged to be fully attained by 2015. At current rates of progress, this is unlikely to be achieved in many countries. Persistent inequalities in access to education arefrequently related to groups suffering marginalisation or discrimination, such as girls and women (see Sharon Goulds, Kabir Shaikh and others), the poor, those with disabilities, children in remote and rural areas (addressed in articles here on small states, multi-grade teaching and open schools) and those in conflict-affected countries or fragile situations. The continuing global economic downturn has further complicated efforts to reach the most vulnerable to exclusion. However, some successes have been recorded, and it is important to explore whether and how they could be adapted to help close the gap in achieving the goals.


Key challenges/gaps

There are five key challenges or gaps that currently exist and that will need to be analysed not just quantitatively but qualitatively in the formulation of the post-2015 development framework. They are: access, equity, quality, pathways and finance.

There is general agreement that, overall, most countries have improved access, and for some countries access is no longer an issue. This belief, however, is not accurate as the statistics show that marginalised populations still do not have access to education in general and quality education specifically. While Commonwealth countries are signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, many have not legislated or implemented policies or programmes to meet the needs of its deserving citizens (see Richard Rieser; Guy Le Fanu; Victoria Joffe).

In many regions and countries of Africa and Asia, nomadic populations do not have access to quality or relevant education; and in post-conflict countries, many children are not reintegrated into schools and have no access to education.

Commonwealth and other global assessments of countries’ progress towards achieving the IAGs show that the key challenges affecting education performance are generally related to quality, expansion and equity. Quality is a common and recurring challenge facing Commonwealth countries regardless of their level of social and economic development.

Consistent and relevant policy measures on quality can enhance the sustainable expansion of education systems and are reflected in the improvement in students’ learning achievements. Quality education, specifically teaching and learning, relates to a range of factors or elements, including: relevance of curriculum; types of delivery methods and approaches; quality of teaching practices and competencies; teachers’ preparation to manage quality teaching in a constantly changing environment; and how the acquisition of learning is assessed and evaluated.

This year’s CEP looks at such issues as teacher training for quality and leadership (Chapter 3), and meeting the growing demand for post-secondary education (Chapter 7). The Commonwealth of Learning and partners like South Africa Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE) in South Africa will be looking to build on the World OER (Open Educational Resources) Congress that took place in June 2012.
Lack of good quality teachers has created low-achieving schools, which in turnhas resulted in high repetition and drop-out rates.

Research has shown that to close the achievement gap and bring students from diverse populations up to the required academic standards, the system needs high quality teachers and teaching (Ferguson, 1991; Sanders and Rivers, 1996, cited in How Do Teachers Learn to Teach Effectively? Quality Indicators from Quality Schools, 2002).

The rapid expansion of some education systems has both positively and negatively impacted on the education sector as a whole. In some countries, the education MDGs are no longer considered a priority, while other countries have achieved the quantitative aspects of the universal primary education and gender parity goals.

For those countries where access and gender parity are no longer a priority, education continues to be a challenge, and out of the reach of many children, particularly the marginalised. Those countries for whom universal primary education is not an issue are, however, experiencing challenges that are directly related to their universal education policies, such as youth drop-out rates, and specifically boys’ underachievement; variable quality of teachers and school leaders, teaching and learning; and uneven student performance and completion rates.

The provision of optional pathways for young people – enabling young people and out-of-work adults to learn new skills – has taken on even greater urgency in times of recession and growing unemployment. Articles here by Henry Charles and Madgerie Jameson-Charles, and Professor Anuwar Ali address school-to-work transition programmes and lifelong learning. But, while many countries have developed policies that promote practical skills, such as business studies and technical and vocational education and training (TVET), large gaps remain in both policies that support this area of education and the provision of alternate pathways for learning.
The gap in pathways is a major challenge for many Commonwealth countries and one that will require strategic analysis, thinking and planning as we review the IAGs and reformulate the new objectives for the development agenda. As we approach 2015, countries have to review their knowledge and conceptualisation of education, and the knowledge and skills required for the 21st century by their citizens, and how they can reposition the role of education to be aligned with these skills.
This repositioning and realignment will first have to begin with a review of what the priorities are for education for the 21st century, and how we can ensure that all citizens effectively engage in it and with it.



Adaptable skills

It has been argued that the ‘traditional’ model of education, which evolved to meet the needs of agrarian or early industrialised economies and societies, does not fit the needs of 21st-century students. A didactic model dating from the Ancient Greeks is no longer appropriate in an age of unprecedented technological advancement. Thereneeds to be a fundamental conceptual shift from an industrial/mechanical to a digital/virtual media mode. This in turn requires different skill sets, and education systems have to adopt and engage with the learning process to ensurethat these skills arerecognised and transferred to citizens. ‘Skills’, or rather ‘adaptable skills’, are increasingly being seen as important as, if not more important than, knowledge. These flexible and adaptable skills are perceived and recognised as vital for responsive knowledge-based economies.

The importance of these adaptable soft skills is that they are transferable beyond the classroom as they focus on learning, students’ ability to learn and relearn, and more importantly learn to learn 2.

This is a powerful argument. But it also rests to some degree on the assumption that most education systems function as a traditional model in the Western sense, and that all societies are following similar development trajectories – and are at comparable points along this trajectory. In reality, although many developing country systems have the formof a Western model, inherited from the colonial era or moulded by development partner technical assistance, the functionmight be more heterogeneous, reflecting a different set of cultural premises. Similarly, while urban areas in developing countries might be moving towards localised, knowledge-based economies, in reality many regions of developing countries remain agriculture-based. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, rural-urban migration is not reaching the expected levels because of a lack of non-agricultural economic opportunities. This means that developing country systems have a hugely diverse range of needs to cater for – ranging from how to exploit the potential of new hyper-fast broadband connections to how to maximise grain yields using minimal inputs in resource-constrained environments.

That is not to say that developed country systems need to be responsive to a significantly less diverse range of needs. Education reforms prioritising academic tertiary education in some developed countries for example – reflecting an industrial policy that viewed the tertiary sector of the economy as being the future and the primaryand secondarysectors the past – has not necessarily been able to demonstrate the impact on growth, equality and prosperity envisaged. Compare this to the results of, say, Germany’s focus on manufacturing industrypolicy, realised through technical and vocational education. Maintaining a wide range of education provision is key in both supply and demand terms – i.e. catering to the needs of students with different tendencies, abilities and interests and the needs of a diversified economy.

The literature on 21st-century skills emphasises how focusing on skills can make education more responsive to the diverse needs of students. However, the development of assessment protocols; for example, the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S) project (see Chapter 3) has been carried out in close conjunction with standardised international criteria such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). There have been criticisms that such ways of assessment are not culturally embedded, or at least that cultural distortions cannot be adequately controlled for; that instruments designed by and for highly developed countries might not necessarily be appropriate in developing countries. This could lead to the paradox that skills frameworks designed to be inclusive of difference, through varied methodologies and individualised learning pathways, areactually implemented as a one-size-fits-all approach to education. (See also articles about education ethos by Robin Barrow; Michael Samuel;
Matthew Conduct; Gautam Patel and Devika Devaiah.) Achieving the IAGs for education by 2015 will require a substantial amount of financial resources. The 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Reportconfirms that financing of Education for All is in danger. Overall, aid to basic education has doubled since 2002 to US$4.7 billion, supporting progress in EFA.

However, current aid levels fall far short of the US$16 billion required annually to close the external financing gap in low income countries (UNESCO, 2011).
The financial challenges include the provision of adequate financial resources for sustaining primary schooling and extending support to early childhood development and pre-primary education, expanding access to quality secondary schooling and to tertiary education and lifelong learning.



The ‘Commonwealth Factor’ in education is arguably diversity and exchange – of culture, language, expertise and knowledge – including knowledge from the sharp end of global crises. It needs to be demonstrated how (and which) 21st-century skills can address the big issues such as climate change (see Nigel Clark), food security, resource depletion, migration (see Jonathan Penson; Akemi Yonemura and Kimberly Ochs), and increasing ethnic and national identity-based conflict. The strong linking of the purpose of education and the creation of a labour force also needs to be unpacked: education that aims only to produce economically competitive citizens and that does not also produce emotionally rounded members of society is likely to exacerbate wealth differentials, and therefore corresponding social tensions, rather than ameliorate them. Education that does not provide its citizens with the capacity to transfer knowledge and skills will only continue the divide, and continue to enshrine a system that fails to provide education and learning for all.