To succeed, edtech companies must listen to teachers

Technology can revolutionise teaching – but only if its creators integrate learning or pedagogy, and consult with teachers first

Technology today has an unprecedented power to transform how we work and interact, from social media and Twitter politics to remote working and the digital economy.

But one area whose potential has not yet been explored to the full is technology in education – even though it could help us meet the serious educational challenges facing our world.

For decades it seems that governments and stakeholders have been discussing the lack of quality educational provision, particularly in the developing and emerging world. The damning statistics should be burned into our consciousness.

It is a scandal that in 2018, nearly 263 million children and young people are not in school, and of the 650 million primary school-age children that are, 250 million are not learning the basics. To meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of quality education for all, we will need to recruit 69 million more teachers by 2030.

With no realistic sign of politicians being able to solve these deep-rooted problems we have to hope that edtech can help bridge this education chasm. Teachers should be able to use technology to access hard-to-reach pupils as well as helping pupils access educational content for the very first time. Time is running short for another generation that are being denied their birthright: a quality education.

Even here in the UK, where pupils have good access to teachers, it is hoped that technology will play a role in improving the quality of education through personalised learning, smart feedback, and improved access to information, networks and resources. Celebrated apps such as Remind, ThingLink, Wonder Workshop and ClassTag for parents are all just the tip of the iceberg.

The growth in the global edtech market over the last few years should be enabling even bigger and better innovations. In 2015, funding of edtech startups reached $3.3 billion, and overall sector investment hit $9.5 billion in 2017; the market has been forecasted to grow 17 per cent year-on-year (20 per cent in China) to an overall value of $252 billion by 2020.

Importantly, this growth is also reflected in developing economies: for example, in the last decade India has become the second-largest edtech market in the world after the US, and an estimated eight-fold increase to $1.96 billion is predicted by 2021.

Despite this huge potential, however, there is a sense that edtech products are falling short. The recent failures of some edtech companies to deliver on projects are well documented: sometimes these occurred because the original aim was too ambitious – or not grounded in the real experience of students and teachers.

However, the problem is not merely individual companies “getting it wrong”. A 2015 OECD report found that even countries that had invested heavily in information and communication technology (ICT) for education had seen no noticeable improvement in their PISA results for reading, mathematics or science.

And in the US, only 33 per cent of parents surveyed by the Learning Assembly say that their child’s school did an “excellent” job of using technology to tailor instruction.

There are many reasons for these failures but three stand out for me. The first is that some edtech startups may not be fully integrating the science of learning or pedagogy into their products. Some companies even confuse market research with educational research.

There needs to be a much greater focus on bringing the education into edtech; in particular, there needs to be a deep research-based understanding of how edtech can usefully augment educators. One piece of meta-analytic research from 2014 showed that improved outcomes in edtech principally depended upon three factors: interactive learning, exploring and creating, and crucially, the right blend of teachers and technology. Edtech is most successful when teachers also play their unique roles as curators, mentors, and facilitators of meaningful peer interaction.

The second is a related issue about the economics of tech entrepreneurship. Some new entrants to the market hope to launch a product that will scale quickly and potentially allow them a lucrative exit.

But those who come to the education sector without an intimate understanding of its economies, timescales and ways of working will struggle – and many companies who have not been aware of this have failed to realise their value or become profitable.  

Edtech investors must have the mindset that they have a rare opportunity that transforms people’s lives. That is a complex task that can take many years of work before they will start to see any results.  

Thirdly, and most crucially, entrepreneurs need to understand that edtech is just as much about people as it is technology. Understanding how the different interest groups involved in education fit together – from governments to parents, policymakers, teachers, parents and students – is key to success or failure.

I have come to believe that we need to make research and consultation more central to the edtech debate. Student outcomes are most improved when innovations work as part of systems that have substantial educational research behind them.

We also need rigorous evaluations of how a new product actually works in the classroom. Furthermore, we have to bring teachers to the fore in everything we do. In all the conferences I have attended around the world, I have never once seen a teacher invited to be a part of the edtech discussion – which often revolve around policymakers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs and investors.

It’s surprising that the sector hasn’t much consulted the teachers who are actually on the front line: in my own experience, the conversations I have with teachers are always the most productive ones.

To promote this approach, I will be guiding the setup of the Tmrw Institute that will look to answer some of the key questions about the role of technology in education. In particular, I want to look at how edtech can help provide a quality education to the billion-plus young people who are either not in school or have no access to a good teacher.

The institute will aim to infuse edtech entrepreneurs with an understanding of what it takes to shift those educational outcomes. And with a rigorous, evidence-based approach, we have reason to hope that technology can help bring a good education to young people wherever they are in the world.

Vikas Pota is the group chief executive of Tmrw Digital 

This article appeared in the TES on 17th August 2018

In Argentina, a Historic G20 Meeting Looks to Set a Global Education Agenda

In a first for the G20 in its nearly two-decade history, education ministers from G20 member countries will meet in Mendoza on Wednesday to discuss global education trends and policy challenges. The fact that education ministers will have a seat at the table under Argentina’s G20 presidency is an overdue recognition that education is inseparable from economic growth, trade and development.

Adding to the meeting’s significance will be the presence of some the world’s leading education-focused civil society organizations. This group will present the G20 ministers, including U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos, with papers on critical education issues, such as 21st-century labor skills and the role of social media in education.

If taken advantage of, the meeting promises to be a momentous opportunity to better the futures of young people in G20 countries and around the world. 

The challenges at hand demand a concerted strategy. In 2018, it is a scandal that over 260 million children are out of school globally, and of the 650 million primary school-age children in school, some 250 million are not learning the basics. To meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of quality education for all, we will need to recruit 69 million teachers by 2030.

Latin America merits particular urgency. Yes, there have been some successes: The region has made huge leaps forward in the number of children enrolled in schools. Today, primary school attendance is over 90 percent, according to the World Bank. And since 1970, the rate of secondary school enrolment has more than tripled, surpassing 94 percent in 2016.

But in 2018, young people in the region are simply not learning enough when they are in the classroom.  With a few notable exceptions, Latin American countries languish near the bottom of the PISA education rankings for science, math and reading – and many are outperformed by other countries at a similar level of economic development.   

That education ministers are meeting to address these problems is a vital step in the right direction. However, they should listen to the insights of civil society education experts who will be coming to Wednesday’s meeting with an agenda aimed at keeping fewer students from falling through the cracks.

On their list is a call for the G20 to invest in improved national data systems to track children who are both in and out of school.  Hard data – organized by categories such as gender, age, ethnicity and migration status – is sorely lacking in many countries about where progress is being made, and where gaps in education provision remain. Another recommendation to the G20 borne from experience is their call for the voices of employers to be heard in curriculum design and teacher training. This could help tackle the huge number of young people who leave school without the skills they need to find a job. 

The institutional knowledge among civil society, often acquired over decades and from on-the-ground experience, can benefit ministers who are often constrained in their mission by short electoral cycles. As a result, many barely have the time to make an impact before they move to other jobs. The continuity these civil society groups have builds unmatched expertise decade-on decade.   

Such a long view is necessary: According to a Harvard Business Review analysis of 15 social-change movements – from polio eradication to the Fair Food Program – nearly 90 percent of historically successful social-change efforts were found to take more than 20 years.

Civil society organizations are invaluable because they have the practical knowledge to advise governments on what really works, and Wednesday’s meeting is a prime opportunity for them do so. As the chairs of the group of civil society representatives convening in Mendoza, we look forward to a productive meeting with the G20 education ministers. However, such meetings of education ministers should not be a once-a-decade occurrence. They should be a permanent fixture at the G20 and G7 every year. Next year, the presidencies of the G20 and G7 fall to Japan and France respectively. It would be welcome to see this format of discussion with education ministers continue.

Esteban Bullrich is a senator for the province of Buenos Aires and Argentina’s former minister of education. Vikas Pota is chairman of the Varkey Foundation. They are co-chairs of a new group of civil society organizations meeting alongside the G20 Education Ministers summit in Mendoza, Argentina.

This article appeared in America’s Quarterly on 4th September 2018

British parents are teachers’ biggest cheerleaders

It’s the UN’s Global Day of Parents, and research shows that British parents have an overwhelming faith in teachers

UN's Global Day of Parents

Today, we mark the UN’s Global Day of Parents, which encourages us to appreciate parents across the world for their selfless commitment to children. I’m sure that there will be innumerable multifaceted discussions around the changing role of parents, their biggest fears for their children and how best to support them in the rapidly changing world they’re entering into.

But our research shows if there’s one thing British parents can agree on, it’s that they think their children’s teachers are doing a fantastic job.

Our Global Parents’ Survey recently revealed that of all the 29 countries surveyed across the world, British parents are among the most positive about the quality of teaching at their children’s schools: almost nine out of ten rate it as “good” or “fairly good”.

What was striking about this overwhelming faith in the work teachers are doing is that it is far higher than the 67 per cent of British parents who view the quality of free to attend schools as good or very good. Therefore, support for teachers themselves outstrips support for the education system as a whole.

What’s more, when asked what they choose to spend additional funds for schools on, 70 per cent of parents said it would be more teachers or to better pay for existing teachers. That’s compared with 44 per cent who wanted to see funds spent on resources and 35 per cent who, even in our digital age, said they wanted to see it spent on technology. This data supports last year’s Ipsos MORI Veracity Index which, as has consistently been the case, showed teachers behind only nurses and doctors as the most trusted profession in the UK, with 87 per cent of respondents saying they trust teachers to tell the truth.

It’s clear there’s a lot of goodwill out there for teachers struggling to make a difference in children’s lives. You only have to look at the outpouring of support London teacher Andria Zafirakou received after she won this year’s Global Teacher Prize. The leading lights and institutions of the arts world in the UK and beyond rallied to her cause of showing the transformative power of the arts in helping prepare young people for the unpredictable world of tomorrow. The public and the media alike, including elite publications the world over, have celebrated her achievements and talked in glowing terms of the great work she’s doing.

But while these things are heartening to see, the unfortunate truth is that teachers are facing more pressure than ever before – and many are caving in the face of it. Department for Education figures out last month show that headteachers are resigning in their droves, with nearly a third quitting within three years of taking the top job. But it’s not just the pressures of command. Overall, in the 12 months to November 2016 over 50,000 teachers in England left the state sector, with one in ten quitting the profession. Many gave up before they even started, with figures showing 100,000 people have completed teacher training but have never taught a lesson. All of this has contributed to a teacher shortfall of 30,000. Fewer teachers mean bigger classes, which means more work and more stress for teachers, which is why many are leaving the profession in the first place.

Parents recognise the pressures teachers are under. The Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Status Index showed in 2013 that only a quarter of British people would encourage their children to become teachers. Moreover, British people recognise the harsh reality that teachers do not enjoy a high social standing. When asked which profession had equivalent status to teaching most UK parents likened teachers to nurses and social workers, unlike in China, where most people saw teachers’ status on par with doctors and where three-quarters would encourage their children to become teachers.

As our Parents’ Survey shows, British parents have many pressing concerns for their children, from bullying and mental health to growing up too soon under the influence of social media. None of these is easily solvable, despite the best will in the world from politicians. But if there is one thing the government can really focus on and find itself almost universally celebrated for doing so, it is supporting and investing in teachers.

On this occasion, politicians accustomed to coming under fire from all directions when formulating policy don’t have to calibrate whether the electorate is completely on their side. Gone are the bad old days when the teaching profession was a scapegoat for so many of society’s problems from anti-social behaviour to economic decline. Any politician or media outlet that tries it on wouldn’t find much traction amongst parents. The old tactic of pitting parents against teachers is yesterday’s politics. If politicians of every stripe were to be as fearless as possible in supporting teachers, then they would find parents fully behind them, united in support of the people who will inspire and skill the next generation.

Vikas Pota is Chairman of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in the TES on 1st June 2018

Emerging market parents lead in education help

Attitudes to schoolwork diverge between developing countries and the west

In all the analysis of education in emerging economies, one large gap in our knowledge has been the views of those who have the greatest influence over young people: their parents. It’s common to speculate that for instance, Asian parents are unusually fixated on education or that parents in China might be sceptical of non-state involvement in education, but until now we’ve been guessing. There has been a lack of hard data.

That is why the Varkey Foundation conducted the most comprehensive global study of the hopes, fears and views of over 27,000 parents across 29 countries. We found that in their views on education, parents in emerging economies remain a world apart from parents in the west.

One of the most striking findings is that parents across the emerging world spend far greater amounts of time helping their children with their education than in developed countries. The stereotype is borne out: Indian parents spend more time helping their children with their education than parents of any other country surveyed, with 62 per cent reporting that they spend seven or more hours a week helping.

However, it’s also true in Vietnam – which ranked second highest on the survey – where half of parents devoted the same long hours on their children’s behalf, and in Colombia, where 39 per cent of parents spend seven or more hours helping.

This picture that could not be more different from European countries such as the UK and France, where in both cases only 11 per cent of parents spend seven or more hours a week helping, or Finland where the number is as low as 5 per cent.

A similar pattern emerges when we look at parents’ views on university. Around 90 per cent of parents in India, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico place a high importance on a university education of their child. Compare that to the UK, where only 32 per cent of parents place such importance on a degree. Here we see vast disparities between the emerging world, where university and education are seen as a pathway out of poverty, and Europe where, in some cases, higher education can be a pathway into debt with little perceived reward.

But it is not simply the case that education is revered by parents in emerging economies in a way that it is not by blasé parents in the west. If parents in countries such as Finland with high standards of living and high school performance scores appear more complacent, it’s perhaps because they can more or less trust their economies to offer relatively better life chances for their children and because the schools are rated highly.

The picture in most emerging economies is quite the reverse — in Peru, Mexico and Uganda the figure is as low as one in five or less.

In emerging economies necessity forces parents to be more pluralistic when it comes to who runs their child’s school. In Kenya, for example, 85 per cent of parents approve of charities running schools that are free, versus just 33 per cent in the UK and Spain. Seventy-eight per cent approve of parent groups running such schools in Kenya, versus a survey low of 20 per cent in Japan.

The picture is the same for religious institutions running free-to-attend schools. Eighty-eight per cent in Kenya approve compared to only 8 per cent in Japan. Equally, in India, 72 per cent approve of private companies running free-to-attend schools, but only 23 per cent in the UK. Again in India, 82 per cent approve of groups of teachers running such free-to attend schools, but only 28 per cent approve in Japan. Even in China, where one might expect a great deal of scepticism about non-state involvement in education, 71 per cent would support groups of teachers running these schools.

These are not just regional trends; the figures point to a chasm between emerging and established economies. Simply put, the stigma against non-state involvement in education that is prevalent in the west — and socially democratic Europe in particular — does not exist in emerging nations where parents tend to be grateful for a good school place in whatever form it comes.

Of course, there are exceptions. The US is generally much more open to private involvement in education than other established economies and American parents place greater importance on university than Europeans, despite the astronomical levels of US student debt. But that is not the norm in western economies, where parents’ expectations are that education is the domain of the state and that parents and private organisations should play a smaller role.

For all of us involved in education development, NGOs and governments alike, we have to recognise that we cannot look at emerging economies through western eyes. We cannot understand the hopes and fears of parents in these countries through the lens of western debates on education. We have to be open to new ideas and solutions.

Vikas Pota is Chairman of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in the Financial Times on 6th June 2018

There’s great news to share…

Friends,

After eight years at the helm of our Foundation, I believe the time has come to pass the baton onto a new leader who can to take our organisation forward with the ambition and vigour it needs for the next stage of its life.

So, today, after a momentous journey working with an incredibly talented and dedicated team, I am formally stepping down as Chief Executive of The Varkey Foundation.

My deepest thanks are owed to Sunny Varkey for placing his faith in me and giving me every support in establishing the Foundation. He gave me a once in a life-time opportunity to make a difference to the education of children throughout the world.  I’ll always be truly grateful for this privilege.

I am, also, delighted to announce that Cate Noble, our current Chief Operating Officer, will become our next CEO.

Cate carries a wealth of experience and is finely placed to lead the Foundation into new project areas. Her expertise in educational development is world-leading and I know, from our working relationship to date, how determined she is to extend the reach and weight of our voice, as well as our impact on the ground. I am certain she will make a great success of her new position.

It has been an incredible privilege to have led our organisation since its inception, and I am honoured that the Varkey family and Trustees have now asked me to serve as Chairman of the Board of Trustees. I look forward, in this role, to helping shape its future strategy and provide as much support as I can to its vital mission.  We are a Foundation that has much to be proud of and that has so much more to give.

Together, we elevated subjects such as teacher status from the preserve of policy-makers and panel discussions into issues that seized the imagination of the public around the world.

We have stimulated debate, informed decisions, and taken action to better the life chances of some of the world’s most underprivileged children. For example, our programmes in Uganda, Ghana and Argentina, are helping to improve the capacity of the teaching profession, disseminating learning and raising awareness of key subject areas, including leadership, girls-ed, and student centred pedagogy.

We have also lead in understanding complex education debates through publishing groundbreaking research on teacher status, parental attitudes on education and the hope, fears and ambitions of generation z.

Many well wishers have told me that our greatest contribution to education debates is the Global Education & Skills Forum (GESF), and who am I to disagree?. The highlight of my year is always the final evening of the GESF when we announce the winner of the Global Teacher Prize and the eyes of the world are rightly focused on teachers.

Five years ago, when we launched the Global Teacher Prize none of us could have imagined what we would achieve together. It has not only unearthed thousands of stories of teacher heroes but has given me some of the most humbling moments of my life. I have met some of the world’s most inspirational, selfless and resourceful people, who could have applied their talents to many other things, but have chosen to devote their lives to the next generation.

I have never been more aware of how teachers are responsible for the future – to the world that will be shaped by the children they teach.

It has been an incredible journey, where I have learnt a lot. I have many questions that remain unanswered, mainly around the subject of technology and the promise it holds. For this reason, I am honoured to have been asked by Sunny Varkey to establish an organization that seeks to build further understanding about the role of technology in education.

At the Foundation, whether it was the delivery of high quality satellite enabled teaching into classrooms in refugee camps, or in rural locations to reach marginalized girls using an interactive platform we invented, or our first online course on school leadership going live in Argentina, technology has been a great force multiplier, which is why I remain curious as to why despite the marketing of many ed-tech innovations none have really broken through.

I will be setting this new organisation up to advance the case for education technology but also to understand fully the context that is required for it to fulfil its potential. I hope to work with all stakeholders and experts in this endeavour.

As an example, we know teachers are central to education. How can tech support them better so that they can be more effective in their classrooms?

This is especially important in middle and low-income countries that have not yet benefited from the fruits of tech development.

The new organisation will also investigate new technologies and how they can break down barriers to education in deprived parts of the world, and, as a base point, will build upon this year’s discussion at the Global Education & Skills Forum, which looked at how we can marry western-centric development with the explosion of innovation and start-up entrepreneurs from the global south.

I have, as many of you will know, half-joked in the past about the old fashioned pencil and paper being the best tech resource in constrained environments, and I am often pulled up on this by those that say that the mobile phone is now common place.

If this is, indeed, the case, then my question is how can we improve the life chances of those who, at best, have only an android device and a 3G connection? The conversation we’ve been having through the Broadband Commission about 5G becoming standard in these areas is all well and good and gives a positive message about the future – but we do need to bear in mind these constraints and that they currently apply to a very large group of people throughout the world today.

The success of our Foundation in highlighting many of these educational inadequacies, and identifying solutions, has been remarkable, and is directly attributable to the Varkey family, our incredible team, our dedicated partners, friends and well-wishers, like you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

There is more to do, and, together, I am sure we will continue to do everything we can to help make a difference to the education of children around the world.

It has been a pleasure and an honour to have served as the first CEO of our Foundation, and I ask, now, that you extend a hand of friendship to Cate, like you did for me. Please join me in wishing her all success as our next Chief Executive.

With gratitude and best wishes,

 

Vikas

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philanthropy cannot substitute government aid

n the last few decades, philanthropy has enjoyed a renaissance. United States citizens contributed $390 billion (Dh1.43 trillion) to charity last year, while 150 billionaires around the world have signed a pledge to give away at least half their wealth. We will see the energy of this movement first-hand at the sixth Global Education & Skills Forum, taking place in Dubai later this month, when more than 40 philanthropic organisations will discuss how they can make the greatest impact with their resources globally.

Our discussion comes at a time when philanthropy is besieged by criticism. The current fractious mood over global inequality means that large-scale giving by the world’s wealthiest individuals is often seen as suspect. There has been a vicious backlash, with, according to one study, a 15-fold increase in negative coverage about philanthropy between 2000 to 2015.

One frequent criticism is that philanthropy is substitute for government aid, allowing governments to decrease their aid budgets and avoid radical political solutions. However, this ignores the resources of government aid compared to philanthropy: The reach of even large philanthropic foundations is still much smaller than that of government aid, and most foundations cannot undertake large-scale humanitarian or social projects on their own.

Rather than a substitute, philanthropy can accomplish goals that, for structural reasons, governments find difficult. Insulated from the electoral cycle, philanthropists can fund change over many decades. In a Harvard Business Review analysis of 15 social-change movements — from polio eradication to the Fair Food Programme — nearly 90 per cent of historically successful social-change efforts were found to take more than 20 years.

Governments also have a greater number of restrictions on the types of intervention they can support, and the speed with which they can react. Government spending requires rigorous auditing and consensus building, which can limit how bold they can be. Philanthropic foundations can implement disruptive solutions without filtering every decision through layers of bureaucracy.

However, for all its advantages in principle, philanthropy must still do more for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Too often there is competition between philanthropists when collaboration would allow resources to go further. Philanthropists working alongside each other has the greatest likelihood of creating long-lasting systemic improvements. A new organisation, Co-Impact, has been founded in order to bring philanthropists together to pursue bigger goals, help them pool their resources more efficiently, and match newer donors with ambitious social projects.

In my own area of interest — education — we need to gather more evidence about what works. The impact of philanthropy across vast areas of policy in many countries is simply unknown, according to a study by NGO 3IE. Programmes ranging from teacher training to computer-assisted learning are often carried out without knowing whether they are effective. Despite expectations, measures in Kenya to halve class sizes and provide more textbooks did little to improve results. Meanwhile, unorthodox methods such as cash transfers to the families of poor children increased attendance for children of all ages across different countries.

Second, we must not become intoxicated by the promise of new technologies. Donating laptops sounds attractive, but will be ineffective if schools have an intermittent electricity supply and no access to broadband. Any technology must take into account local conditions — and be judged as a success or failure by how far it improves basic skills. Instead, we must not lose sight of basic, well-evidenced measures, such as providing food to children at school. For example, the Akshaya Patra Foundation programme is making a huge difference by serving fresh lunches to 1.6 million schoolchildren across India every day, facilitating education and encouraging children to attend.

Third, we need to improve our communication of education issues. Contributions to global health vastly outweigh those given to education: one study found that US private philanthropy contributed 53 per cent of its grants to health, but only 9 per cent to education. This is partly because, over the past few decades, global health has communicated its message with an emotional punch. This is no criticism: the progress in lowering the death toll from disease has been one of the greatest achievements of the 21st century and the result of effective campaigning.

However, the same toll of despair associated with poor health comes just as surely from a poor education. Failure to learn in school is a cancer that spreads — weakening individuals, societies and nations in every conceivable way. It is an invisible threat. The story of a malnourished or sick child can be told through a single picture, but there are no stark images that convey the squandered talents, the frustrations, and the loss of hope that come with an education denied. All involved in education philanthropy must find a more compelling way of telling this story.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, achieving results requires collaborations with Government: In fact, according to a study by Harvard Business Review, 80 per cent of successful initiatives also require changes to government funding, policies, or actions. Only by working closely with governments can we strengthen public systems of health and education to achieve a positive and lasting impact.

Yet, governments everywhere are making deep cuts to aid budgets. This year alone, the EU has proposed a 6.5 per cent cut to the 2018 aid budget compared to 2017 spending. Education has been particularly neglected — with international aid levels falling since 2010. At a time when the number of children out of school in developing countries is rising again, Governments are choosing not to prioritise education aid. However intelligently they work, philanthropists cannot plug this gap alone.

Vikas Pota is the chief executive of Varkey Foundation

The article appeared in the Gulf News on 15th March 2018

To tackle Britain’s social mobility crisis, we need to raise the status of teachers

Before their resignation yesterday, the Social Mobility Commission’s published their annual state of the nation report. It shows that in 2017, where a person grew up and went to school continue to be determining factors on their life chances today.

Measuring the prospects of children from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed in adult life across England’s 324 local authority areas, the report makes for grim reading.

While London and its surrounding commuter belt are tearing away, remote rural areas and neglected coastal towns are falling behind.

It’s little surprise Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea are performing well. Yet even in poorer areas of the capital like Tower Hamlets and Hackney, good education and employment opportunities for disadvantaged people are providing them prospects not afforded to those in the country’s left-behind areas.

But the Commission finds that in areas as different as West Somerset, Newark and Sherwood, Weymouth and Portland, Corby, and Carlisle, the barriers to success for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are far higher, and they are going on to face lower pay, longer commutes and fewer job opportunities.

This should be a national scandal demanding urgent attention. The very bedrock of meritocracy, espoused by Conservative and Labour governments for decades, is that talented people, no matter their background, should be able to succeed through study and hard work. Why is this not happening?

The reasons are multifaceted, but one fundamental issue across many areas is a lack of teachers and good schools.

As the report finds, a secondary school teacher in the most deprived area is 70% more likely to leave. This correlates with findings from Cambridge University presented to the Sutton Trust two years ago, showing that teachers in the most advantaged fifth of schools have on average nearly a year and a half more experience than those in the least advantaged schools, suggesting that the most effective teachers are not staying in schools in disadvantaged areas.

According to National Audit Office research published in September, more and more teachers are leaving the profession and many schools around the country, particularly in disadvantaged areas, are struggling to find good teachers to replace the ones who leave. Just 52% of teaching jobs in secondary schools and 46% in primary schools in 2015/2016 were filled by teachers with the required expertise and experience.

In England’s most deprived areas, as in the most deprived areas of the world, we urgently need more good teachers. Addressing chronic overwork is vital. And we need to see good teachers who are passionate about helping turn around the lives of children in disadvantaged areas be rewarded for their efforts.

Research from the Varkey Foundation found that only 25% of Brits would encourage their children to become teachers. That means policy makers need to consider initiatives to bolster the modest social status of teachers in the UK.

The Global Teacher Prize is one attempt to do that – a $1 million (£746,000) award presented annually to an exceptional teacher, who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession and to the lives of the students and communities around them. The prize seeks to highlight the importance of educators, celebrate their efforts, and raise their status, with the Top 50 shortlist coming out this month.

We know that teachers matter – a good teacher can make all the difference in whether a child from a disadvantaged background succeeds in life or not. Raising the status of teachers and rewarding them for their work and their efforts in disadvantaged communities is a vital first step to addressing the shocking lack of social mobility. The resignations over the weekend are just one sign the need to do that is urgent.

Vikas Pota is chief executive of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared on the Left Foot Forward blog on 4th December 2017

‘The failure to educate a child anywhere in the world risks instability for us all’

Unesco, the UN agency charged with improving global education, has recently been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Rows over alleged anti-Israel bias following the admission of Palestine as a full member have led to the withdrawal of US and Israel from the organisation. Even the appointment of the former French culture minister, Audrey Azouley, as the new director-general was reported in terms of her family background and the voting machinations behind her appointment.

This white noise is distracting attention from the urgent mission of Unesco. It is the only global body, supported by most of the world’s governments, which can be mobilised to solve the global education crisis. During her tenure, Ms Azouley must avoid the political squalls that have dogged the organisation and communicate to the world the importance of education – which has fallen down the world’s priority list over the past decade.

The agency is losing a director-general in Irina Bokova, whose steady hand has helped guide the Sustainable Development Goals. She has supported international gatherings of education ministers where they can share expertise and priorities – including the Global Education & Skills Forum. Through incisive reporting, Unesco has also highlighted the gap between where global education is and where it needs to be in the coming years.

Addressing this gap will require all of Ms Azoulay’s reserves of creativity and energy. In the current media climate, dominated by explosive presidential tweets and a cacophony of shrill voices, important long-term issues are being drowned out. Ms Azoulay needs to be bold, framing the global education crisis in a compelling way to cut through in this world of short-attention spans, instant journalism and fake news.

Unesco must rally governments and build momentum, just as the UN did prior to the Paris climate talks in 2015.

The truth, which isn’t widely known, is that progress on improving education among the world’s poorest children has stalled. Up to 2011, the number of children out of primary school had been reduced to 57 million from a high of 102 million in 2000. By last year, this number had risen again to 61 million, with a total of 263 million altogether out of school.

Of these, 34 million live in Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than a fifth of primary-age children are out of school. However, the challenge is not just at the level of school coverage: in many countries, teachers are poorly trained and supported, meaning that learning outcomes are poor. The effect of this is that around 175 million young people in poor countries – equivalent to one quarter of the youth population – cannot read a sentence.

The decline in education aid funding

Changes are coming in the world economy that will hit developing countries hardest. As machines take over tasks from humans – in everything from textiles and agriculture to administration— the impact on current patterns of employment is likely to be devastating. A report from the Oxford Martin School estimates that a staggering 85 per cent of currently existing jobs in Ethiopia risk being lost to automation, along with 69 per cent in India and 77 per cent in China.

In order to stay in the game, countries must now begin to educate their citizens differently. As well as traditional academic skills, future labour market success will require creativity, communication skills and lateral thinking. The main obstacle is that many developing economies are currently ill-equipped to train their young people in these skills. Teacher numbers are falling annually in Ethiopia, Pakistan and Cambodia, and class sizes frequently reach 60 pupils. Unesco says we need 68.7 million extra primary and secondary school teachers in order to get all children into education by 2030, which will require $39 billion (£30 billion) every year to fill the funding gap.

This means Unesco needs to be even bolder in calling governments out on this issue. Tragically, there has been a decade-long decline in education aid at precisely the time at which it was most needed. One option would be to call on all governments to sign legally binding agreements to increase education aid for the next decade. World leaders, especially in the G7, must understand that there is only a short time in which the destructive impact of automation on the poorest countries can be avoided. Regrettably, education is still often thought of as something to be addressed only once poverty has been eradicated, hunger ended and healthcare improved. Yet, none of these problems can be fully remedied without reliable, quality education provision.

Changing attitudes requires some fearless advocacy from Unesco, which, representing the world, can still speak with a moral legitimacy that others lack. And yet, in recent years, it has ceded ground to other organisations that are doing important work but cannot speak with the kind of mandate that can shift the international community’s direction of travel. The millennium development goal of “universal primary education” was missed, despite progress. The sustainable development goal of an “inclusive and equitable quality education” will not be reached for generations if current trends continue. Ms Azouley’s most important duty in office is to persuade governments that are backsliding on their commitments to think again – either through calling them publicly out or behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

Ms Azouley must find ways of making the public understand that a failure to educate a child anywhere in the world will, in the end, create instability for us all – through irregular migration and the potential growth of extremism and conflict – whether we are in the developed or developing world. Unesco must rise above the political squabbles that have sometimes defined the organisation. Its duty is to avoid another generation facing the crushed ambitions and hopelessness that follow when any child is denied a decent education.

Vikas Pota is chief executive of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in the TES on 7th November 2017

‘The “march of the machines” and the teacher recruitment crisis together make for a disastrous cocktail’

Today is World Teachers’ Day and in the coming years, we will rely on teachers more than ever. Without their guidance, the UK workforce will not be equipped to face their greatest challenge since the industrial revolution – the unrelenting march of the machines.

A recent review by Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane concluded that automation would threaten up to 15m British jobs the next few years – around half of the total. This could be solved – assuming that we could fill the resulting employment gaps with new or existing industries not susceptible to automation, such as technological or creative industries. Such restructuring can be a normal part of an economy’s evolution when carried out at a manageable pace. But this restructuring requires a workforce with a deep and flexible skills base. And unfortunately, our two methods of supplying such a workforce – education and immigration – are about to fracture.

Just at the time that we are reducing migration, we will need skilled workers more than ever before. The UK economy is reliant on immigration from healthcare and agriculture to the creative industries. EU citizens account for around 7 per cent of the workforce at both the high- and low-skilled end of the labour market. However, immigration figures for this year so far show a fall of 43,000, with a comparable rise in emigration. The resulting net migration total of 248,000 is a quarter lower than before the Brexit vote.

Net migration was just 5,000 for Eastern Europeans – the lowest since these countries entered the EU in 2004 – and many employers are already experiencing difficulty in filling vacancies. At a minimum, we will need to fill vacated jobs – and new roles – with qualified UK citizens if we are not to see a failure of the labour market in critical industries. But it is not just about the replacement of foreign-born workers. As more jobs become automated – from driving and manufacturing to previously immune professions like law and accountancy – new high-skilled jobs will be needed to replace them.

Not enough teachers

Politicians across the spectrum are united in proclaiming that education is the answer to automation, skills training, and retraining for those whose jobs will disappear. But new data suggests that we simply don’t have enough teachers to teach these new skills that the country will need. As the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported in their latest global report on education, released last month, UK teachers are facing stark pressures, leading to ever-increasing numbers leaving the profession.

This was echoed by a National Audit Office report, which showed that the total number of secondary school teachers fell by five per cent between 2010 and 2016, and that, compared to five years ago, more teachers are leaving the classroom for reasons other than retirement.

Meanwhile, acceptances for teacher training courses dropped by 10 per cent this year. Many new recruits into the profession are also giving up: 30 per cent of newly qualified teachers leave within the first five years, and nearly half of England’s teachers plan to leave teaching in the next five years. Perhaps this is unsurprising given a salary fall for teachers in real terms between 2010 and 2015 of around six percent. The Local Government Association claims these factors, along with a surge in pupils, are about to crash the secondary system.

The result is that while many countries face an ageing teacher population, the UK has the opposite issue. In 2005, 32 per cent of teachers were 50 or over. Today the figure is 20 per cent, reflecting a reduction of 37 per cent in this group, the largest such reduction in the OECD.

The UK is losing its more-experienced teachers. If these trends continue, our education system may be incapable of preparing its students for an uncertain economic future in which they will have to draw on a wide range of technical and creative skills. So what can be done to turn the situation around?

UK lagging behind

The reasons for poor teacher recruitment and retention are complex – from work-stress to onerous non-teaching duties – but one of the most important factors is the low status of teachers, both in the UK and worldwide. This, in turn, may mirror the gender imbalance within teaching: around seven out of 10 teachers are women, although this drops closer to 50 per cent at tertiary level (traditionally viewed as higher in status). Men, who are generally found to value the status of professions more, are not being drawn to school teaching.

All the international evidence – from Finland to South Korea – shows that it is impossible to create an excellent education system without well-motivated, well trained and fairly rewarded teachers. For Britain to succeed in an automated world post-Brexit we are going to need our human capital to rise to the challenge.

Unfortunately, the World Economic Forum Human Capital Index released last month shows that the UK is currently lagging behind many of its European counterparts, including Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Automation and a crisis in teacher numbers – together with Brexit – could converge in a way that will have a catastrophic effect. How well we treat our teachers may ultimately determine whether we can turn this human capital crisis around and emerge successfully through the most tumultuous period since the war.

Vikas Pota is chief executive of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in the TES on 5th October 2017

Working together for the betterment of education for all…

The Varkey Foundation has over the past many years worked in sub-saharan Africa and Latin America on designing, delivering and funding various capacity building programmes for teachers and school leaders. This is vital work if we are to strengthen public education systems and achieve the sustainable development goals.

Our increasing interests are in a number of thematic areas such as global citizenship education, technology for development and girls education.

We have built strong networks that we want to share along with our experiences and insights.

I am delighted to share with you that the UCL Institute of Education appointed me as a Honorary Lecturer recently. This is an opportunity to both contribute to the work of a world class institution, and give them key insights into ours.

We need more people working in these areas and I believe this is a way to achieve that.

Building capacity in these areas requires a focus on policy.

For this reason, I’m also pleased to share that the Centre for Science & Policy at Cambridge University have elected me to their Policy Leaders Fellowship, along with Permanent Secretaries and Directors-General from Whitehall and Brussels. If we are to move the needle on many issues connected with education, we stand a better chance of doing so by understanding the diverse range of issues from different perspectives. By bringing together academic researchers, senior civil servants, and leaders from the voluntary and private sector to share best practice and deep-dive on key policy areas, I am sure we will, all, gain immensely in our knowledge and understanding on key issues.

I am grateful to both universities for these opportunities, as well as Harvard Graduate School of Education for appointing me as a Visiting Practitioner last year.

I am confident that working with these great institutions, we stand a better chance of achieving our mission of ensuring each and every child has a more prosperous future.