Articles from 2013/14


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Overview. Education in the Commonwealth: a status report

Esther Eghobamien, Interim Director, STPD, Commonwealth Secretariat



The Commonwealth recognises education as a human right and remains committed to achieving universal access to quality education for all. The Commonwealth has also reaffirmed the role education can play for social and economic transformation and, ultimately, the realisation of its collective aspirations – democracy and development. Yet, despite the impressive progress made in Commonwealth countries since the Education for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were declared in 2000, recent data from the 2012 Commonwealth report on the performance of member countries in achieving the goals, shows that about 23.3 million primary school-aged children are still out of school in the Commonwealth.

Supporting member countries to achieve the education MDGs and EFA has been the focus of the Commonwealth Education Programme. The position of Commonwealth countries in respect to the degree of achievement of EFA and the MDGs is diverse. Countries vary greatly in terms of the size and structure of their education and training systems, demography, resources available and policy-making. This diversity implies that Commonwealth countries are likely to have different priorities with regard to education, a situation that needs to be taken into consideration in the formulation of the Commonwealth Secretariat Education Work Programme periodically.

The Commonwealth comprises two billion people, of which one billion are over the age of 25 years. There are 461 million illiterate adults in the Commonwealth, which accounts for 59 per cent of the world’s illiterate adults. The Commonwealth needs to strengthen education management and governance through sustainable systemic reforms. This includes supporting contextually specific policies that aim to ameliorate the impact of poverty on its citizens.

Regardless of specific country challenges and their priorities in setting EFA and MDG national targets and goals, quality issues appear to constitute a common concern across the Commonwealth. There is abundant evidence suggesting, for instance, that the MDG 2 – to achieve universal primary education – cannot be attained unless there is significant improvement in quality education provision and learning. In this regard, the recent international debate on education has placed greater emphasis on teachers and school leaders, stressing the critical role they can play in achieving the universal goals. It is in this context that the longstanding Commonwealth focus on teachers continues to be relevant.

The post-2015 development agenda for education debate has significantly shaped both the programmatic focus for the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Education Section, and the context in which its education programme is delivered. The Section has contributed to shaping the new development agenda, and continues to advance the education interests of the Commonwealth through its work programmes.


The post-2015 development agenda for education

2015 will see the deadline for achieving EFA and the MDGs. A new global framework for development is being debated. Progress in achieving the current goals is being reviewed, and lessons learned, while minds are turning to the future and envisioning the world we want. Along with many other organisations, the Commonwealth Secretariat is taking this opportunity to review its role in supporting the education of Commonwealth citizens, and to map out how it can contribute in the most effective ways.

One of the clear advantages of the Secretariat is its connections with Ministers and key policy decision-makers. This is achieved partly through its status as an intergovernmental organisation in which each member country has a stake, but also through Commonwealth Education Ministers’ commitment to meeting triennially to articulate a common vision for education in the Commonwealth and to learn from one another about how to achieve this vision.

Given the similarities among Commonwealth education systems, due to shared language, history and values, the Secretariat has been the natural choice to mediate these relations. Areas of collaboration to date have included sharing the learning from middle-income countries about performance management of school systems with lower income countries. In a world in which power relationships were rapidly shifting, a body of equals has particular import.

In global political, economic and social contexts, which have changed radically since the debate that led to the current development framework was held, the role of education remains as important as ever. However, the way education is planned, funded, implemented and monitored has become more complex. More philosophically, in a world where high technology is now commonplace for many, and yet only so recently, the whole purpose of education is being questioned. What and who is it for? How can it best be delivered? How much should it be for individual, intrinsic benefit, and how much for extrinsic benefit to society and the economy? How can the big global challenges –  inequity, discrimination, climate change, food security, conflict, unemployment, the digital divide – be confronted through education? Who decides? Commonwealth Ministers of Education met in Mauritius in August 2012 to discuss these questions. They established a Ministerial Working Group to make recommendations for the post-2015 development framework for education. The recommendations stress access, equity and quality. The Chair of the Working Group, Dr the Honourable Vasant K. Bunwaree, Minister of Education and Human Resources, Republic of Mauritius, handed the Commonwealth’s Ministerial recommendations to the UN High Level Panel (HLP) on the Post-2015 Development Agenda in December 2012. These three priority concerns strongly resonated throughout the HLP report, released in May 2013. These three priorities also shape the Secretariat’s work in education.

The HLP report marks an important step in the process of negotiating the post-2015 consensus. The recommendation for four education goals – in the areas of pre-primary, primary and secondary education and education for employability and skills – reflects some of the key areas discussed by education and development stakeholders in the global consultations held in the last 18 months, in which the Secretariat has enthusiastically engaged directly and indirectly through its membership. But the publication of the report, which represents the first concrete suggestions emanating from the UN, affords stakeholders a moment to step back and ask whether these provisions for education are necessary andsufficient.

There is no doubt that the post-2015 development framework will be crucial in marshalling resources and setting policy. We must therefore be mindful of what is left out of proposals as much as what is left in. We must consider how precise the targets are. Are they sufficiently focused to be clear, but flexible enough to allow a wide range of countries to achieve them according to their need? We must envisage the indicators that might be used to measure progress towards their achievement – for indicators in many ways define the goal. It is a truism that what gets measured gets done, and in all this we must ask ourselves, what do we exclude by adopting a particular formulation?


A Technical Meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Working Group was convened in September 2013 to consider the response to the HLP report. The four key issues addressed were:

1. Integrated development framework It is unclear whether the three current education components (MDGs, EFA and the Decade for Education for Sustainable Development) are intended to be unified into a single framework (as recommended by the Working Group)

2. Universality Although the HLP report advocates that all countries should implement the new global goals, the extent to which developed countries’ ministries of education are preparing for this is unclear

3. Skills Effectively integrating skills for employment into the framework requires further thought and clear direction

4. Measurement of quality The influence that emerging global learning assessment frameworks might have on the framework and its implementation needs to be understood and discussed.


With regard to the first issue, Commonwealth Ministers stated that aligning the existing education MDGs and EFA would result in less duplication; ease the process of incorporating global goals into national policies; make monitoring, evaluation and reporting more efficient; and make comparisons among countries more meaningful (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2012b). The Secretariat and the Working Group have been advocating for this alignment in diverse global, regional and national forums.

On the second issue, implementation of the original MDGs focused on developing countries, supported by the development agencies of the developed countries. But there is no country that does not need to improve access, equity and quality. The Commonwealth, with countries ranging from the most to least developed, is well placed to bring developed and developing countries’ ministries of education to the table so that they can learn from countries experienced in aligning education delivery systematically to globally mandated criteria. The Secretariat is inviting both developed and developing countries’ ministries of education to the Working Group meetings to facilitate this.

Similarly, integrating skills for employment is a task faced by all countries. In June 2013, the Secretariat convened a roundtable on technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and skills, inviting key stakeholders to share strategies for how the education and employment agendas could be more effectively connected.
This took place in the context of a Secretariat review of TVET policies and initiatives in five countries (Bangladesh, The Gambia, Jamaica, Kenya and Papua New Guinea). Review findings will form the basis of technical assistance to refine policy. Ensuring that these policies align with emerging global debates is key. This exemplifies the Commonwealth’s pivotal position at the nexus of national and global domains.

With regard to quality, the Commonwealth has long advocated a broad conception of quality that goes beyond easily measured numerical indices such as student-teacher ratio or class size. The Commonwealth Teacher and School Leader Professional Standards, which are developed and updated through a consultative process with a wide range of countries, maintain a strong focus on learning outcomes as the principal indicator of quality and the foundation of professional competency. But the measurement of learning outcomes is one of the areas where we must exercise most caution in what we include or exclude as indicators. Selection of a few areas of competence, such as literacy or numeracy, will result in teachers teaching to the test and a reductive curriculum of conceptual and affective poverty.

If results-based aid is made contingent on the achievement of a few goals in key educational outcomes, education systems will re-orient around results in those areas, causing institutionalisation of that curriculum and this will be difficult to undo. Conversely, numerous indicators that try to capture every conceivable aspect of learning will be unwieldy and expensive to operate, causing an additional burden to education systems. Balancing the tension between global measurements of quality that enable comparisons among countries and national systems that provide contextually relevant feedback for students, teachers, parents, school leaders and ministries must be the focus of efforts as this agenda is progressed.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Working Group has articulated an Advocacy Strategy that provides a road map on how critical  stakeholders should be engaged to sustain the ministerial recommendations through the global negotiations. The ‘key message’ from Ministers is:

The need to ensure free, quality, basic education for a minimum of nine years continuously, minimising differences in learning outcomes, defined by national standards, between more and less advantaged groups, and to provide post-basic education and opportunities for all youth and adults to develop knowledge, skills and attitudes to participate fully in society and secure decent work.

Active engagement of all stakeholders and at all levels – national, regional and global – in advocating the ministerial recommendations is essential. The above message is elaborated in the Commonwealth Ministerial Working Group’s recommendations for the Post-2015 Development Framework for Education, which remains the basis for detailed advocacy.
To ensure coherence and minimise duplication of efforts, the Education Section of the Secretariat has been tasked with establishing a mechanism for co-ordinating advocacy action, monitoring progress and providing feedback to the Ministerial Working Group.


Access, equity and quality

Broadening access to quality education for the most disadvantaged has remained the focus of the Secretariat’s Education Section, which sees access, equity and quality as very strongly linked. Just a few selected projects are outlined below to indicate how the Secretariat has responded to member countries’ needs.

Although access to primary education was, until recently, improving greatly, the positive trend is slowing, and some Commonwealth countries are showing reverses (Menefee and Bray, 2012). This indicates the difficulty in reaching the most marginalised communities. To help address the needs of one such community the Secretariat recently published Guidelines for Quality Education Provision to Nomadic Communities in Africa. These guidelines aim to support education stakeholders by offering a roadmap for policy and planning based on the experience of nomadic educationalists from various Commonwealth countries.

Although much progress on gender equality has been made, there is still much to be done. Women and the Teaching Profession: Exploring the Feminisation Debatedraws on the experiences of Dominica, Lesotho, Samoa, Sri Lanka and India, examining the role of female teachers in the expansion of education systems and the surrounding gender equality issues. In an increasing number of countries, boys’ participation and achievement in education is less than girls’. The Secretariat is currently working in Jamaica, St Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago to develop and support the implementation of a school improvement strategy to address boys’ underachievement.

Emergencies caused by disaster or conflict can have a highly disruptive effect on education, compromising access, quality and equity. Educators in Exile: The Role and Status of Refugee Teachers examines the barriers forced migrant teachers face in securing employment in host countries.

Migration is an important issue in the Commonwealth in other contexts as well. The Secretariat has launched two tools to assist countries develop and implement policies for managing international teacher migration. These are the Model Memorandum of Understanding for the Recruitment of Migrant Teachers, which provides a template for countries wishing to enter into an agreement on the cross-border recruitment of teaches, and the Standard Reporting Form, which assists countries to collect data on teacher migration.

At the 18th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers (18CCEM), Ministers identified environmental concerns as a key issue for the Commonwealth, especially – but not exclusively – for its 32 members that are small states (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2012a). Education for Sustainable Development in Small Island Developing Statesprovides detailed ideas on how gaps in implementing ESD can be overcome.
2 It is based on research in ten Commonwealth countries.

The Guidebook to Education in the Commonwealth provides examples of over 60 innovative initiatives that overcome a wide range of policy challenges, using examples from over 30 countries.

The Commonwealth Education Good Practice Award, which was received by Rwanda for its Nine Year Basic Education programme at 18CCEM, also exemplifies how Commonwealth countries can learn from one another.

Partnership and brokerage remain core principles of the Secretariat’s approach. In partnership with the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), the Secretariat is in the process of supporting a number of higher education institutions to undertake a selfassessed quality assurance audit and review, according to a Review and Improvement Model developed with COL.

All countries will benefit from the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Facility (CTEF), which was approved at 18CCEM. This will be based at University Sans in Penang, Malaysia, and its core activities will include data collection, research, and the production and dissemination of general policy papers, as well as other services that will improve the quality of tertiary education.

Teachers are of course at the heart of quality, and the Secretariat has continued its long-standing convening role for the Association for the Development of Education in Africa’s Working Group on the Teaching Profession. This productive partnership has resulted in a number of important outputs, such as comprehensive teaching materials on multi-grade teaching, harmonisation and enrichment of technical support, programmes and activities in African Commonwealth countries and beyond. In addition, improved multilateral co-ordination and bilateral support has strengthened the Commonwealth Secretariat’s position as a leader in the education sector. Development of programmes for school staff, leaders and management has helped to improve teaching and learning, and to address teachers’ ongoing professional education needs.



The post-2015 debate represents both opportunities and risks. Done right, the new global framework has the potential to end poverty for the first time in human history. Failing to do right, the incomplete fulfilment of human potential and the increase in inequity will come to haunt us. Education is at the heart of the debate, and the Commonwealth at the cutting edge of turning the debate into reality.