Sustainable development goals are failing because we don’t care enough about education

Last autumn, the world’s governments came together to agree 17 ambitious sustainable development goals, which promised to overcome a vast array of problems – from poverty and hunger to health and gender equality – by 2030.

The UNESCO report published today ‘Education for People and Planet: Creating Sustainable Futures for All’ charts the progress in meeting these targets.

It demonstrates an obvious truth: education is the rock on which sustainable development is built. In parts of Africa, mothers who have a secondary education are three times more likely to have children that survive beyond the age of five.

If Nigerian girls spend four extra years in school they have, on average, one fewer children. In Sierra Leone, young people without an education were nine times as likely to join rebel groups.

But, as UNESCO Secretary General Irina Bokova notes in the introduction, today’s report should “set off alarm bells around the world”. The fourth SDG – ‘an inclusive and equitable quality education for all’ – will not, on current trends, be fulfilled for several more decades, when today’s children will already be approaching retirement.

The number of children who never set foot in a classroom, after years of falling, is rising again.

In Uganda, only one in five elementary schoolteachers meets the minimum standard of proficiency in maths, while in Kenya, state schools teachers are absent almost half the time. Such failure if it continues will, in turn, prevent us from meeting the other sustainable development goals.

Post-financial crisis, international political will towards solving the global education crisis has dissipated. Education aid including from the EU and World Bank, has been in decline since 2010 – falling by $600 million between 2013 and 2014. Meanwhile aid spending on health continues to grow – a sign that education is falling down the list of donor priorities.

Irina Bokova
Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO delivers a keynote lecture Credit: M.A.PUSHPA KUMARA

Yet there has never been a greater need. Nearly half a billion children live in countries affected by war, famine and deadly epidemics. Syria had achieved universal primary education by 2000 but now 2.8 million Syrian children are out of school.

In many other unstable countries – from Somalia to Afghanistan – there isn’t even any official count on how many children are out of school. Yet we devote less than two per cent of humanitarian aid to education.

This is the moment for a massive increase in investment. The Millennium Development Goals already picked the low hanging fruit – increasing the number of school places across the developing world. Providing education to that hard to reach final ten per cent – and increasing its quality – will be tougher still.

If we get education right, we are half way to solving the rest of the world’s problems

The developing world is about to be hit by an economic shock. The “fourth industrial revolution” – that will replace many jobs by automation – threatens 85 per cent of jobs in Ethiopia, far more than in the West.

The rote learning culture within classrooms in much of the developing world – particularly in Africa – will not produce the curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking that the jobs of the future will require.

Achieving quality will be expensive. Teachers have to be retrained and better remunerated. Curriculums must be revised. Assuming that developing world governments do manage to devote the target of four per cent of their GDP to education, that would still leave an annual finance gap of $39 billion to provide every child with a good school place.

The Italian G7 Presidency next year is an opportunity to showcase its commitment to global citizenship through the Sustainable development goals. It can make this flesh through a commitment from the G7 countries to enshrine in law their commitment to education aid – just as the UK has done in its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international development.

We can’t, however, rely on aid alone to plug the gap. NGOs and the private sector must share the strain. Low-cost private schools are delivering quality education, in some cases for as little as 40p a day, in developing countries.

Parents are voting with their feet where they see gaps in government provision. In India one in three children in rural areas attend private schools – an increase of 40 per cent in the last 10 years. This is providing a stream of investment in building schools and improving teacher quality that is not at the mercy of hard-pressed government budgets.

As they stand outside the state system, schools run by charities and the private sector are more likely to be the kind of ‘disruptors’ that can raise standards and pioneer new teaching practices. But too often private education in the developing world is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Insensitive operators have, on occasion, failed to deliver. On the other side of the debate, some oppose private involvement on principal, despite evidence that it can achieve improved outcomes.

Public, private and voluntary sectors are here to stay so should be collaborating – just as in the UK’s academy programme, that hugely improved London’s state education system.

There are examples elsewhere; in Uganda, one of the organisations we have worked with, the NGO Building Tomorrow, constructs and is given the freedom to operate schools – but the Ugandan Government pays the teachers’ salaries. In India, the Akanksha Foundation has opened schools in low-income parts of Mumbai, partially funded by the state, with the aim of impacting the mainstream education system.

We need a serious commitment now by governments to meet the Sustainable Development Goals on education, unclouded by ideology, while they can still be salvaged. The evidence shows what we instinctively know: if we get education right, we are half way to solving the rest of the world’s problems.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in the Telegraph newspaper on 6th September 2016

Developing world education is failing, it’s time to open up to the private sector

This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper on 25th September 2015 – on the day the Sustainable Development Goals were approved by all UN member states:

There have been some real achievements in global education following the establishment of the millennium development goals (MDGs) by the UN in 2000. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the proportion of children enrolled in primary school has risen from 52% in 1990 to 80% this year.

However, in the dash to get children into the classroom, there was too little focus on the quality of the education once they were there. UNESCO estimates that of the world’s 650 million primary school children, at least 250 million lack even basic literacy and numeracy skills.

The new sustainable development goals (SDGs), which will replace the MDGs at the end of this year, address this issue of standards, calling for “inclusive and quality education for all” by 2030. But these will remain empty conference room sentiments if the $16bn (£10.5bn) per year required to achieve good quality universal education throughout the world is not met.

However well-intentioned, governments in the developing world cannot raise the sums needed to provide high-quality education on their own. If they could, they would have done so decades ago. Education spending must be balanced against budgets for other essential infrastructures such as hospitals, roads and sanitation.

Too often government schools leave education in the hands of teachers who haven’t been adequately trained. Even worse, according to UNESCO, many countries – including Cameroon, Ethiopia and Senegal – are only meeting the goal of universal primary education by employing untrained teachers.

Low state teacher salaries, which are often paid sporadically, discourage people from entering (and staying in) the profession. In rural Zambia it can cost teachers up to half their wages to cover the costs of transport and accommodation needed to simply collect their pay from district offices each month. In Malawi, one in 10 teachers reported that they were often not in school because they were travelling to collect their salaries or make loan payments.

To build the schools and train the teachers needed to meet these new SDG targets, we cannot rely on governments alone. Parents in the developing world, even those on low incomes, are voting with their feet and opting for private education because of shortcomings in state provision.

World Bank data shows that the number of primary school pupils attending private schools is on the rise, with some costing as little as a dollar a week. In rural India in 2013, 29% of elementary school pupils were educated privately, up from 19% in 2006.

Though NGOs do vital work, only the private sector can provide the scale of investment necessary, unencumbered by political and bureaucratic obstacles. Bridge International Academies, a chain of low-cost private schools, for instance, has created 400 nursery and primary schools in Kenya and Uganda using standardised classrooms. Large-scale providers, with international reputations to nurture, can be better guarantors of quality and consistency than individual schools in the community that lack the deep pockets to invest over many years.

The notion that private business must be involved in this process has gone some way to being accepted. From the start of negotiations on the SDGs, UN officials have sought to formally bring the private sector into the dialogue, but some still see private sector involvement as a threat. Just last year the UN special rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, warned that the costs associated with private schools were exacerbating inequality and said that, “for-profit education should not be allowed in order to safeguard the noble cause of education”.

In my experience, the worlds of business and education too often speak entirely different languages. An ideological distaste for the private sector means that even where business could help philanthropically, it is rarely approached for help.

There are some notable exceptions. Aviva, through its Street to School community project, has helped more than one million children receive support and education in 17 countries. Deutsche Bank has helped more than five million school children through its support of literacy initiatives in Brazil and provided shipping container classrooms in China.

However, these great efforts pale in comparison to the scale of business philanthropy in global health. The Brookings Institution estimates that corporate giving to global health is 16 times the amount given to global education. Last year, a report by the Varkey Foundation found that the Fortune 500 companies spend just $2.6bn (13%) of their total annual CSR budget of $19.9bn on education-related projects. Fewer than half provide any spending on education-related CSR at all.

The cultural divide between business and education is particularly unnecessary given that business is deeply concerned about the impact of poor education on organisations and the future prosperity of markets. A PWC global survey of more than 1,200 CEOs found more than half were concerned that skills shortages would stunt growth, particularly in emerging economies. A better-educated population would add rocket fuel to economic growth in the developing world. According to the OECD, if all 15-year-olds achieved a basic level of education, Ghana could increase its GDP by 3,881% and South Africa by 2,624%.

As more than 150 world leaders meet in New York for the U N Sustainable Development Summit 2015, they must recognise that to have any chance of meeting the new SDGs on education, business must be seen as part of the solution.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation