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

‘Over testing risks squeezing out creative skills in pupils’

This article was featured in the Telegraph newspaper on 9th April 2015:

This year’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report, published today by Unesco, underlines the stark disparities in education between the rich and poor world.

In particular, it highlights that the world’s poorest children are four times more likely to be out of primary school than the world’s richest children.

While the West frets about the future of skills and how to equip young people for technological change, some battered education systems in the developing world are struggling with the basics.

For education ministers in these countries, the correct policy prescriptions are clear, even if they are fiendishly difficult to implement given their lack of resources.

For their equivalent numbers sitting in their ministerial limousines in the developed world, who have the luxury of being free from such fundamental worries, it is perhaps less clear what they should be doing to ensure that their education systems turn out young people who can compete against lower-paid skilled workers from emerging economies.

The standard response in the world’s education ministries has been to judge how they size up to the global competition through placing faith in the OECD’s PISA rankings, especially on those in STEM subjects.

Countries as varied as Germany, the UK, the US and Sweden have undergone bouts of hand-wringing after disappointing PISA scores. Policymakers everywhere make the trip to Shanghai and South Korea to find out if they can bottle the elixir of educational success that has propelled these countries to the top of the rankings.

The lesson that Western countries seem to have taken from the East is that the curriculum needs more maths and science and less emphasis on the liberal arts. This is generally accompanied by the claim that, to raise standards, a heavy dose of standardised testing is required to hold teachers to account for pupil performance.

Of course STEM subjects are vital, but the pendulum has swung too far in favour of a curriculum that undervalues the creativity and the critical thinking that can come from the liberal arts. Politicians from all parties have acquiesced in this.

Witness, for instance, the former UK Education Secretary Charles Clarke’s description of medieval history as “ornamental” and a “waste of public money”. Or Florida Governor Rick Scott’s recent claim that the state doesn’t need “more anthropologists” but instead people with “technology and engineering degrees”.

This dichotomy that is unthinkingly repeated between the ‘practical sciences’ and the ‘self-indulgent humanities’ ignores the fact that many innovators do not come from a science tradition.

Neither Steve Jobs nor Mark Zuckerberg were STEM majors. Jobs attended Reed College – a liberal arts school – and later said that it was a course in calligraphy that had the most influence on the revolutionary design of the first Apple Macintosh.

Zuckerberg’s studies at Harvard ranged from ancient Greek to psychology; Facebook’s success relied less on technical innovations than on insights about how people would present their identities on the Internet, and Zuckerberg has said that Facebook is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology”.

There are countless other examples of innovators being informed by insights from the liberal arts. George Soros’s spectacular success on Wall Street can be attributed to belief in the irrationality of markets that came from his reading of Karl Popper and other philosophers.

And Financial Times journalist, Gillian Tett, perhaps the only mainstream journalist who predicted the financial crash, saw the risks of collateralised debt obligations by drawing on lessons on group dynamics from her PhD in anthropology.

The second assumption is that STEM education teaches skills that automatically lead to innovation. For example: it is hoped that the current vogue for teaching coding in schools will kick-start a new generation of development wizards.

We should be cautious. As many programmers will testify, learning how to code requires two things that will not be covered in any coding class: a large number of hours of experimentation, trial-and-error, and problem solving – mostly done either as part of a job or for fun in one’s spare time; and a real fascination with designing and fixing software. Jobs and Zuckerberg were technically able but they didn’t become so at school.

Standardised testing, introduced by countries fearing they are falling behind the global competition, is in danger of squeezing out the innovation that countries will need to succeed.

Even Arne Duncan, US Education Secretary, has warned that standard testing is “sucking the oxygen out of the room”. An obsession with testing can narrow the curriculum – so that creative pursuits such as art and music are seen as dispensable, limit the scope and time for extra-curricular activities, and prioritise rote preparation at the expense of a wider understanding of subjects.

So how should we encourage innovation? The answer of course is that we need STEM-literate humanities graduates and humanities-literate STEM graduates.

Yes, we need some testing to understand how well teachers and pupils are performing. But we don’t want testing to become an obsession that leaves both stressed and focused on getting through an exam rather than opening up their mind to new possibilities.

We don’t want the school day so crammed that there is no room for literature, poetry, music and art.

Today’s report does actually also show that things are very slowly getting better for developing economies. Since 1999, the number of out of school children and adolescents has declined from 204 million to 121 million.

There is still a long way to go but I would urge education ministers, as they continue to develop their curriculums, to learn from the mistakes we have made in the developed world.

If the story of Steve Jobs, who created the world’s biggest company, teaches us anything, it is that we can never predict from where in the curriculum inspiration and innovation will come.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation

India and China face huge education challenge

This article was printed in the Financial Times on 19th January 2015 in the widely read Beyond BRICS blog:

By 2030, the economies of India and China together may contribute 65 per cent of global GDP and be home to the majority of the world’s working age population. India alone will possess the world’s biggest pool of potential employees.

But the giddy predictions of future growth seem more fragile when it is considered that this potential labour force is dependent on education systems that often fail to teach basic skills.

India has the largest number of illiterate adults of any country globally. Teacher absenteeism is the third highest in the world, and many teachers lack basic training. Some 12.8m young Indians enter the work force each year and, without adequate skills, will often struggle to find employment. Shanghai leads the rankings done by Pisa, the Programme for International Student Assessment, and has become a poster-child for education ministries around the word. But in rural China, many students still do not finish secondary school.

A global survey in 2012 of more than 1,200 CEOs found more than half were concerned that talent shortages would constrain growth, particularly in Asia and other emerging economies. Over 40 per cent of Indian CEOs said they had shelved or delayed an initiative because of talent-related constraints.

This skills shortage risks stifling future growth. However, to date, business worldwide has shown little enthusiasm for investing in education itself. This week the Varkey Foundation published the world’s first study into global corporate social responsibility (CSR) spend on education by Fortune Global 500 companies. It found that these companies only spend $2.6bn – 13 per cent – of their total annual CSR budget of $19.9bn on education-related projects. Less than half provide any spending on education-related CSR at all.

The report finds that Chinese companies, in particular, score fairly low when it comes to spending on education. Chinese Company Law (Article 6 of Companies Law of the People’s Republic of China) requires companies to “undertake social responsibility” while conducting business. But across the 95 Chinese companies in the Fortune Global 500 list, just $52m a year was spent on education related CSR. Nearly all was spent within the country, with a small proportion identified as spent in Africa. Interestingly, half this education CSR spend was committed to infrastructure whilst 28 per cent went on primary education and only 5 per cent went to secondary education.

Even though the quality of reporting is extremely variable in China, it seems that Chinese companies, on the face of it, spend a lot less on education related CSR than their US and European counterparts. The eight Spanish companies in the Fortune Global 500 spend US$344m a year on education related CSR activities whilst the 132 US companies in the Global Fortune 500 spend $1bn.

Encouragingly, CSR reporting is rapidly increasing in China, which should provide more robust statistics. According to a report published last year by the SynTao think tank, only one company reported on CSR in 1999, but this stood at more than 1,700 in 2012.

So does India fare better?
The report shows that the eight Indian companies in the Fortune Global 500 spend $15m in total – again relatively low compared to their European and US counterparts. However, this picture is changing fast; we can hope for an upturn in Indian education related CSR spend. Under new rules that came into effect in April last year, India is now one of the few countries in the world with a law for mandatory CSR spend. Large companies are required to spend a minimum of two per cent of their average net profits on CSR-related activities.

To further complicate the picture, whilst the report identifies the individual education related CSR spend of the Tata entities in the Fortune Global 500 it does not recognise all the philanthropic efforts of the vast Tata empire. Tata Sons, the holding company for more than 90 Tata entities from Tata Steel to Tata Motors, is 66 per cent owned by trusts. This means that roughly two thirds of profits across all the Tata companies have supported an assortment of Indian philanthropic causes over a century.

This Indian culture of self-help may be as a result of enlightened self interest; faced with poor skills, Indian industry has for long resorted to training its own workers. For instance, IT giant Infosys established its own Global Education Centre which trains thousands of new recruits in technical, communications and management skills.

The report also finds that when Indian companies spend on education they spend well. In general, education-related CSR projects globally are often low-value, unstructured and un-coordinated. However, spending on education by companies in India is often institutionalised, long-term, and needs-based. Furthermore, over two thirds of Indian education related CSR spend goes directly to schools (39 per cent to primary and 29 per cent to secondary). In fact, most of the Indian companies in the Fortune Global 500 list run schools for underprivileged children in urban areas, teaching them basic literacy and numeracy.

India and China have seen wage increases significantly higher than corresponding increases in developed economies, a sign of a short supply of skilled talent. So unless emerging economies prioritise education-related CSR spend then this shortage of skills will threaten profitability.

The Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution have found that $1 invested in education today in India returns $53 in value to the employer at the start of a person’s working years. Companies would do well to remember that, without adequate skills, those predictions of soaring economic growth might turn out to be a historic missed opportunity.

Vikas Pota is chief executive of the Varkey Foundation, a partner of the Business Backs Education global advocacy campaign.

Teachers’ pay must be at the heart of global education reform

This piece was printed in the Guardian on 29th January 2014:

Progress in global education – especially in the poorest regions of the world – remains painfully slow. The latest Unesco Education for All global monitoring report, published Wednesday, underlines how far we still are from guaranteeing a good quality education for every child. While many pupils are now attending school, the quality of the education is often so poor that they are failing to learn the most elementary skills. Around 175 million young people in poor countries – equivalent to one quarter of the youth population – cannot read all or part of a sentence.

The situation for girls is particularly dire. If current trends continue, it will take until 2072 for all the poorest young women in developing countries to become literate. In other words, it will only be the grandchildren of today’s pupils in sub-Saharan Africa that can expect to learn the skills that the developed world takes for granted.

Though the subject of improving education in the region could keep conference organisers in business for years, the overwhelming problem outlined in the report is simple: the availability of teachers and the quality of teaching.

Over the last few years, there has been much excitable talk about Africa being on the cusp of an economic renaissance. But this will amount to another lost opportunity if the number of teachers is not increased to cope with the continent’s exploding young population. Worldwide, 8.2 million new teachers need to be recruited by 2015 (pdf). If they are not, then Sub-Saharan Africa will be the worst affected region.

The quality of teachers is equally important. In a third of countries analysed by the report, less than three-quarters of primary school teachers are trained to national standards. In West Africa, where the teaching of basic skills is particularly poor, over half the teachers have little formal training and are on low-paid temporary contracts.

Poor pay results in many teachers earning supplementary income through second jobs, or running family businesses, when they should be in the classroom. This culture has been allowed to develop because there is little accountability: independent observers do not regularly inspect schools, and teachers do not have to prove their competence in the classroom after they have been hired.

There is, of course, no simple solution to this litany of problems. But the Education for All report is right that developing countries must attract the best candidates into teaching and incentivise them to stay. When governments have to choose whether to spend education budgets on new facilities or the salaries of teachers, there’s a good argument that spending on attracting teachers will yield the most tangible results. Peter Dolton from LSE has proven that there’s a clear link between the level of teachers pay and the quality of a country’s educational outcomes. Those countries that are in the upper-reaches of the Pisa rankings – South Korea, Finland, Singapore – all make an effort to recruit the best graduates and often demand that entrants to the profession have a second degree.

With many competing demands on fragile states – to build roads, provide healthcare and provide a welfare safety net – it’s unrealistic to expect that governments can provide the additional education provision required by Africa’s youth bulge alone. If managed well, partnerships with the private sector can bring in the investment to build schools quickly and import international expertise. For instance, entrepreneur James Tooley has pioneered school places in Ghana for 65 cents per day – including a school uniform, a hot lunch and work books – which is within reach of regular families.

Most importantly, we must raise the status of teaching. This isn’t just a problem in developing countries. In a survey in 21 different countries on which profession the public thought was comparable with teaching, it was only in China that people thought that the status of teachers was similar to that of doctors. Unsurprisingly, with such attitudes towards teachers, Shanghai topped the 2012 Pisa rankings. And it’s not just about teacher pay. We must culturally value teaching – seeing it not simply as a worthy vocation but as a job for the highly skilled that is essential to our future.

Without that, we will condemn more generations to leave school unable to read to the end of a sentence.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation


How well paid teacher workforce is the most valuable resource in Africa

This piece was printed in the Times Educational Supplement on 29th January 2014:

After decades of depressing news, the last few years have seen an outbreak of giddy optimism about the prospects for Africa. The continent’s economy has begun to shift from mining and agriculture to tourism, telecoms and banking. Six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies over the last ten years have been in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s no surprise, then, that The Economist has christened Africa “the hopeful continent”.

But such hopes could be dashed unless education improves. Unesco’s Education for All global monitoring report, published today, paints a damning picture of basic skills in the poorest parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa. Though school attendance has increased, 175 million children remain illiterate. As ever, girls fare the worst. The report predicts that it will take until the next century for every girl from the poorest families in sub-Saharan Africa to finish secondary school.

The reasons for Africa’s poor educational performance could easily fill a thick exercise book – from large classes and poor funding to insufficient textbooks and rickety schools. But the malaise has one overwhelming cause: the lack of respect and decent salaries for teachers. This discourages many with the talent to teach from entering the classroom.

It is a particular disaster because 70 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population under the age of 30. Africa’s much-trumpeted renaissance will be stymied if education capacity does not keep pace with the youth bulge, as Asia has successfully managed to do over the last thirty years. The continent’s business leaders frequently argue that finding employees with the right skills is the biggest to challenge they face. And the scale of the task is urgent – according to the Unesco report, 8.2 million new primary school teachers need to be recruited by 2015.

However many teachers are hired by education ministries, it is the quality of their teaching that will help determine whether sub-Saharan Africa will continue to grow. According to the report, west African education is dogged in particular by the fact that less than half of teachers have been formally trained and work under poorly paid temporary contracts.

Teacher absenteeism is also a major issue: in a school I visited in the region, just two of the twenty teachers that were supposed to be there were present. This is not due to idleness. Teacher salaries are often so meagre that teachers have to work a second job to support their family – at the expense of those in the classroom.

Such behaviour takes hold because of a lack of accountability. All too often, once a teacher has been hired, they have a job for life; there is no requirement to demonstrate their skills over time. And there is no equivalent of the Ofsted visit where independent observers can validate the quality of teaching.

This is not to criticise the teachers who are often working heroically in the most arduous circumstances. However, the Education for All report is right that the priority for developing countries is to employ the best teachers, pay them competitive salaries, encourage them to stay in the profession and ensure that they improve their skills throughout their careers.

Governments in developing countries have painful choices to make about spending priorities. But, as Peter Dolton from the London School of Economics has demonstrated, there is a clear link between the level of teacher reward and a country’s educational performance. The star performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings – from Finland to South Korea to Singapore – all prioritise attracting the brightest, best-qualified graduates into the profession through offering excellent pay and conditions.

Practical measures to improve the skills of those teachers already in the classroom are essential. The Varkey GEMS Foundation last year began running a two-week course to improve pedagogic techniques. The programme trains teachers to encourage their students to apply their knowledge rather than simply recalling rote-learned facts. Those teachers that benefited from this programme will, in turn, train their colleagues back in their schools, eventually improving the skills 250,000 teachers around the world.

We should beware too, of techno-utopians who predict that they can transform African education. Though the iPad and the laptop can be valuable teaching tools, internet connectivity in the more remote parts of the continent should not be overestimated. In most schools, using the latest technologies simply isn’t the most pressing concern. The budgets devoted to technological fixes would be better spent, for the moment, ensuring that pupils have access to books, paper and pens.

The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) noted in 2010 that “the demand for education services [in Africa] is rising at a faster rate than governments can supply”. With the endless competing demands on meagre resources of these poorer states, the resources of the private sector must be leveraged to build and operate schools on the scale required. Over forty per cent of pupils are already enrolled in low-cost private schools in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda.

When the Varkey GEMS Foundation published the Global Teacher Status Index last year, we found that, out of twenty-one countries polled, only one country – China – thought teachers enjoyed the same high status as doctors. It is no coincidence that Shanghai now leads the Pisa rankings.

Respect for teachers is essential for African development. The euphoria that has greeted the glad economic tidings from Africa is entirely justified after decades of poverty and conflict. But, as the Unesco report reminds us, without well-trained, well-paid and well-respected teachers, hope for the next generation of young Africans may prove short-lived.


Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation