Can edtech help address the deepening special educational needs crisis in our schools?

The current schooling environment for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is creeping up the news agenda. A report in April by thinktank IPPR North identified funding cuts for SEND children of 17% across England since 2015, and while government funding through the “high needs block” increased by 11% across England during that time, demand outstripped it, increasing by 35%.

Families and educators see a genuine crisis at hand. 1,000 councillors have recently written to the education secretary urging the government to end spending cuts and increase SEND funding, parents and teachers in 28 towns and cities across the country marched in protest against the cuts in May, and families have now taken the government to court in a landmark legal fight. Clearly, solutions are urgently needed. With last month’s Learning Disability Week helping to raise awareness of SEND issues even further, it is a great time to consider how edtech can help those most in need.

There are direct consequences of not rising to the challenge of assisting those with SEND. For example, these children are significantly less likely to progress from a school’s nursery into its reception than their classmates, and cuts and reforms have reduced local authorities’ capacity to take action to understand and address inequalities in early years provision.

An already difficult situation is complicated by the wide variety of conditions listed under SEND: communication and interaction difficulties; cognitive and learning difficulties; visual, hearing and other sensory impairments; as well of a long list of social, emotional and mental health needs. Not only that, special needs can be highly layered, and sometimes even invisible, creating a real challenge for teachers and schools in providing effective help for the diversity of students with disabilities.

There are direct consequences of not rising to the challenge of assisting those with SEND.

The fallout from not dealing with this challenge is profound. The Education Policy Institute had no hesitation in a report last year listing SEND status among prominent factors that have a long-term negative impact on a child’s education and life opportunities, way beyond school into adulthood, including income poverty, and “a lack of social and cultural capital and control over decisions that affect life outcomes.”

According to the latest government data, there are almost 1.3 million SEND children and young people in England alone with 92% of those educated alongside their mainstream peers, so there is plenty of opportunity for the latest technology to democratise the quality of teaching to all in the classroom. Let’s also not forget that the government’s own recently published edtech strategy specifically asks industry, the education sector and academia to “identify the best technology that is proven to help level the playing field for learners with special educational needs and disabilities.”

Against such a challenging backdrop, however, edtech is not the magic bullet to solve all these problems, but it can help. It will never replace teachers, as their intuitive and empathetic connection with students can never be replicated or automated. One of the benefits of this human dimension, particularly for SEND students, is that it facilitates personalisation, with teachers able to spend face time giving the best tutoring and support to individual students in their classes with different needs and abilities. If technology can cut down the time teachers spend marking or reduce their administrative burden in other ways, personalisation is further enabled and supported.

There is plenty of opportunity for the latest technology to democratise the quality of teaching to all in the classroom.

As the government’s edtech strategy itself acknowledges, if implemented and supported properly, technology has the ability “to reduce teacher workload, boost student outcomes and help level the playing field for those with special needs and disabilities.” One of the most encouraging aspects of this Whitehall strategy is how it is actually open to suggestions from the market, whether they are assistive technology developers or education experts.

One of the historic problems that has frustrated me for a long time has been a lack of meaningful dialogue between the tech developers and those on the education coalface who will have to use these tools. Tech and app developers would create products which failed to work or be understood in the classroom, while teachers felt their specifications and requirements were never featured in the design process. This ‘understanding gap’ looks like it could be bridged via the government’s new approach spelled out in the strategy, which promises to bring together teachers and educators with innovative edtech companies to tackle common challenges, as well as to make sure those working in education are well-equipped with the necessary skills and tools to meet the needs of schools, colleges and their pupils. This seems like progress at last.

Many accessibility tools that can help SEND students available today and in development are app-based for easy download onto a Chromebook, iPad or other computing devices. This is an area we should continue to push on, following the US lead, where over 70% classrooms are expected to have an interactive display this year. Whether it’s already existing tech such as tools that read content aloud to those who can’t see it, or who learn better with audio, or new developments in sip-and-puff solutions for students with mobility challenges, the ever expanding world of edtech offers new hope and innovation every day for SEND students in particular, and there is plenty of potential for continued growth and innovation in this market.

Vikas Pota is group chief executive of Tmrw Digital

This article appeared on ET on 6th July 2019

To educate the world, we must amplify the inspirational voices in our own communities

Across the globe and in all walks of life, committed individuals are striving to make a difference. They will be vital, if we are to rise to the challenges of ending illiteracy and bringing quality teaching to everyone

There have been sweeping social changes in my adult lifetime, from how easy it is to travel to how easy it is to communicate. Many of us have had the experience of explaining to a baffled teenager how, not so many years ago, we used to communicate via landlines, and had to make plans that couldn’t be altered at the last minute with an instant message.

But the most far-reaching change is about much more than convenience. It has transformed whose voice gets heard in society. In decades past, the levers of change belonged almost exclusively to the elites. Today, change is also welling up from new and unexpected sources.

Previously marginalised groups – from farmers in the developing world living with the impact of climate change to girls fighting for the right to an education – have seen their voices are amplified by technology. It is their posts, tweets and clips, shared by the billions of people using social media, that now define how our society understands itself. This is transformative because it enables ordinary people to have a huge impact, potentially giving power to everyone, everywhere.

In all walks of life, people are also waking up to the possibility that with insight, determination and a desire to help others, they can make a real difference. People from outside the political sphere, such as like the young survivors of the 2018 Parkland school massacre in Florida, who launched the #NeverAgain campaign to change US gun laws, have led the way in showing how debates that seemed calcified and immovable for decades can be cracked wide open. This campaign led to a 17-minute school walkout across the US – one minute for every life lost in Parkland – and the two-million-strong US-wide March for Our Lives.

While the opportunities for people from beyond the traditional spheres of political discourse to effect real change are welcome, those wanting to harness this new digital ecosystem still need two things: the ability to thoroughly understand the world around them, and the ability to communicate their knowledge so that people will listen. Unfortunately, for every person that can take advantage of social media’s potential reach, there are many more that cannot – especially the millions around the world that have no access to education.

If we are to turn this situation around, we must look not just to our leaders but to our neighbours

It is a tragedy that in 2019 nearly 263 million young people worldwide are out of school. Of the 650m primary-school-age children that are in education, 250m are not learning the basics.

Generation after generation of politicians have, for all their well-publicised efforts, failed to tackle a deepening crisis in global education. The Millennium Development Goals, modest as they were, were missed. And despite all the high hopes of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), progress in meeting them has stalled.

Between 2011 and 2016, the number of primary-school-age children not in education rose from 57 million to 61 million. It will take until the year 2072 at the current rate of progress to meet the SDG of eradicating youth illiteracy and providing quality education for all. In fact, to achieve this goal by 2030, we would need to recruit 69m more teachers globally – a tall order indeed.

We cannot afford to wait for politicians to act: the time is too short; the crisis too severe. If we are to turn this around, we must look not just to our leaders but to our neighbours, to those inspirational individuals in our communities all around the world who are striving every day to make change across all walks of life. We in the education community must learn from these people.

The Global Education & Skills Forum (GESF) aims to bring together today’s visionaries and influencers with leaders and policymakers from the global educational community. By sharing the stories of grassroots activists, philanthropists, campaigners and tech developers, we can start a debate about how to meet challenges on a global scale. In 2018, we heard from fascinating individuals such as the YouTube educator Physics Girl, whose experiments on video make science popular and accessible.

This year, GESF 2019, which will be held in Dubai later this month, aims to take this conversation a step further and explore the interactions between technology, education and the problems of tomorrow. We will hear from Kennedy Odede, the social entrepreneur who founded Shining Hope for Communities to fight urban poverty and gender inequality in Nairobi’s slums. And we are honoured to have with us Bana Alabed, the nine-year-old Syrian girl who has documented the siege of Aleppo – with its airstrikes, hunger, danger and displacement – for the whole world to see. Bana’s Twitter posts play a huge role in educating people about the reality of war thousands of miles away. Her calls for peace illustrate what social media can achieve at its best. How do people like Bana see the world in which they are growing up? How would they educate the world?

And, of course, we must listen to the greatest changemakers of all – those whose imprint on the future will be through the children they teach. Teachers will once again be centre-stage in our forum, and will draw in the eyes of the world on the evening we announce the winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2019, which is awarded under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.

By listening to and reflecting on the insights of these changemakers, we will be a step closer to solving the problems of tomorrow’s generation – and changing the lives of millions for the better.

Vikas Pota is chairman of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in The National newspaper on 17th March 2019

Technology can help give children refugees the education they deserve

As we move into the new year, the U.N. Refugee Agency has put out a timely reminder that figures for forcibly displaced people across the world have reached a record 68.5 million, with an average of one person displaced every two seconds in 2017. For the young people among them, this typically means losing access to a quality education.

We can no longer wait patiently for technology to one day play a role in tackling this crisis. The time for technology to support educating our most vulnerable is now. Initiatives in this hitherto unexamined corner of the education space are detailed in the extensive new UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report 2019.

Of course, it would be ideal for every refugee child to be in a classroom, getting the one-to-one support and education they need from a caring teacher. That interaction, with all the empathy and ability required to see a child’s weaknesses and turn them into strengths, is always best delivered by human educators.

But we don’t have a good record on that front. According to UNESCO, 264 million children do not have access to schooling, while at least 600 million more are “in school but not learning.”

These children are not acquiring even basic skills in math and reading, which the World Bank calls a “learning crisis.” In order to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of quality education for all by 2030, we will need to recruit 69 million teachers, a target many see as simply unachievable, bearing in mind the tremendous pressures on funding being felt by various governments and economies worldwide.

Even in the United Kingdom, the world’s fifth biggest economy, the numbers of teachers are falling, leading to a sense of crisis. If the relatively prosperous U.K. is struggling in this regard, what hope for low-income countries and what hope for refugee children?

The UNESCO report also makes the stark point that teacher recruitment and management policies are reacting too slowly to this increasing need. It calculates that Germany needs an additional 42,000 teachers and educators, Turkey needs 80,000 teachers, and Uganda needs 7,000 primary teachers to teach all current refugees.

We are now at the edge of a perfect storm as according to UNHCR, barely half of refugee needs are being met, leading to worsening hardship and risks. Based on contributions to date, it expects funding for 2018 to meet just 55 percent of the $8.2 billion that are needed, compared to 56.6 percent in 2017 and 58 percent in 2016.

With donor funding falling ever further behind as the number of forcibly displaced worldwide grows, because recruiting enough teachers takes time and even more money, because technology solutions are available today, we should be rolling education technology out now.

Governments may struggle to fund this alone, but big business can play a vital role, as can civil society, NGOs, and the voluntary sector. Together, they can roll out education technology to where it can change lives.  Get development’s most important headlines in your inbox every day.

UNESCO is right that technology can frequently help with the education of displaced people, particularly in instances where the scale of that displacement overwhelms education systems. Its scalability, speed, and portability can help compensate for lack of standard education resources. The report acknowledges the important part teachers play in the equation and makes the valuable point that most of these tech programs, in one way or another, support teacher professional development.

The UNESCO report cites examples of where tech is already working: a UNESCO teacher education project in Nigeria in association with Nokia; UNHCR and Vodafone’s Instant Network Schools program reaching more than 40,000 students and 600 teachers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, South Sudan, and the United Republic of Tanzania; NGO Libraries Without Borders and UNHCR’s Ideas Box package, which has been shown to have a positive impact in two Burundi camps hosting Congolese refugees.

There are other success stories I could point to where technology is proving educationally transformative in the developing world, such as Tusome — “let’s read”, in Kiswahili — which is working well in Kenya thanks to being taken up by the government and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development with $74 million over five years. It is reaching 3.4 million children in 23,000 government primary schools and 1,500 private schools. The costs are low — about $4 per child per year — and reading abilities are rising as a result.

Clearly, there are many different digital tools that can be used to boost education to meet a variety of needs all over the world, and much of it is low-cost. We have a stark choice to make: Give refugee children the education they deserve now or store up problems for the future — a whole generation of frustrated, uneducated young people, unable to find work.

The holidays gave us all — from concerned citizens to global leaders — a chance to step out of the frenetic routine to reflect on those with the greatest need and consider how we can create a better world.

On the world’s list of New Year’s resolutions, there is one that will pay dividends for generations to come. We must all work together to put transformative education technology in the hands of refugee children. They deserve, for once, to be at the front of the queue.

Vikas Pota is group chief executive of Tmrw Digital

This article appeared on Devex on 24th January 2019

A continental shift in education technology?

While the sector is currently dominated by the US and China, Europe can be the powerhouse helping edtech come of age, says Tmrw Digital’s Vikas Pota

Last month I attended a rooftop event in London hosted by Edspace.io, where a cross-section of European edtech startups and VCs gathered to discuss the latest innovations in education. The talent, energy and enthusiasm of those in attendance was palpable – a sign of the growing confidence within Europe’s edtech sector, a market holding immense potential for companies looking to make a global impact.

Indeed, Europe is the second largest worldwide market when it comes to education spending, totalling over €700bn each year for its 110 million students. The pedigree of its countries’ education systems is world class, with relative minnows such as Estonia, Ireland and Finland consistently riding high in the OECD’s PISA rankings.

Yet, despite 3,000 edtech companies currently active across the continent, they receive just 8% of worldwide investment in the sector. Instead, the US and China dominate, with more than 58% of all edtech funding in 2017 going to US companies and 19% to China. It’s no surprise, then, that the members of edtech’s unicorn club – those with valuations worth more than $1 billion – are either Chinese (such as Hujiang or iTutorGroup) or American (such as Coursera or Udemy). India’s Byju’s is the sole exception.

Can Europe add a name to this list and stand alongside its other tech titans such as Sweden’s Spotify or Germany’s Zalando? Sceptics will argue that lack of access to funding and a fragmented market of 44 countries – many with complex school procurement processes – will hold it back. I take a more positive view. For example, from 2014 to 2017, investment in European edtech start-ups more than tripled in size, from €140mn to €490mn. Yet transactions per year have remained broadly consistent, meaning that investors are devoting more significant sums, in more mature projects. While €490mn represents but a third of the venture funding invested in US edtech last year, just four years ago it was a tenth. Clearly, the historical reluctance of investors to back European edtech companies is abating.

UK stands tall

Attracting 35% of this €490mn figure, the UK stands tall as the main player on the European edtech stage. Of course, Brexit uncertainty poses challenges – particularly to the workforce in the UK tech industry – yet the country has some natural advantages. At the top level, the government is engaged, establishing a national computing curriculum and recently calling on tech companies to help revolutionise the education sector, identifying five key areas of focus. The UK is also home to a host of world-class universities and publishers that can act as key local partners and collaborators for entrepreneurs. And, with its influential Tech City community, London is unparalleled in Europe as a launch pad for edtech start-ups, ranking as a global top five edtech hub.

Other European cities are also rapidly establishing themselves. Paris, for example, is developing into one of the most dynamic edtech ecosystems in Europe. The edtech Observatory, which comprehensively lists French edtech players and researches major trends in the industry, was recently established in the city, as was the EdTech France association. Two venture capital funds dedicated exclusively to edtech investment – Brighteye Ventures and EduCapital – were also recently launched in Paris, closing almost €100mn between them.

Take Helsinki, too. Finland’s education system has created a world-class “’ade in Finland’ brand, with Finnish edtech companies developing best-in-class products that are highly regarded for their quality and innovation, particularly in gamification. Importantly, edtech start-ups in the city have access to one of Europe’s leading edtech start-up accelerators, xEdu. While the US leads the field with more than a dozen such structures dedicated to edtech, Emerge in the UK and LearnSpace in France are examples showing Europe is heading in the right direction.

Europe’s natural advantage

Assuming a European startup achieves success at home, scaling up to become a unicorn requires international expansion. This is where European edtech companies have a natural advantage: its diversity and deep historical links to the rest of the world give it a uniquely international outlook. While Chinese and US startups understandably tend to focus on their large domestic markets before taking products overseas, European companies have an incentive to capture the considerable opportunities overseas.

There are huge markets in the developing world with young, growing populations clamouring for edtech – India, for example, has 300 million children aged 6 to 17. This is where European companies can step in.

A European edtech company that has successfully implemented its product or service across European countries, with different barriers to entry, has proven staying power; if you make it in Europe, the door to the rest of the world swings open. The worldwide popularity of European curricula – such as the International Baccalaureate and iGCSE – further serves to help internationalise European edtech startups. So, too, the similarities of foreign countries’ educational systems to those in Europe, with the UK and Commonwealth a prime example.

Let us not forget the cultural richness and variety of lifestyles on offer in Europe’s major tech hubs, from the uber-cool Berlin startup scene to the more relaxed Barcelona. The continent is a melting pot of different cultures, languages, and ideas like no other, where budding entrepreneurs from all over the world flock to make their big break. Indeed, with President Trump’s H1-B visa program crackdown, and with many European countries creating startup visa programs making it easier to hire foreign talent, Europe is ideally positioned to continue attracting the brightest tech talent.

Over the longer term, if Europe can play to its natural strengths, it could nurture the next generation of start-ups and help edtech truly come of age.

Vikas Pota is group chief executive of Tmrw Digital

This article appeared on the Education Technology website on 29th October 2018

The Rise of the “Teacher-preneur”

Why educator involvement in edtech isn’t merely a nice idea.

Last week we held our inaugural event in London, where two inspirational edtech entrepreneurs spoke about how they made the leap into starting their own businesses, what drove them to take on the challenge, and how they achieved remarkable results in such short spaces of time. They had one thing in common: both used to be teachers.

The growing trend of the “teacherpreneur” is timely, and a potential solution to the impasse afflicting educational technology – edtech – in its current state. Despite all the hype, it’s fair to say that edtech isn’t living up to its potential.

Addressing the Facts

In the developing world, governments and NGOs have had little impact so far in addressing the shocking fact that over 260 million children and young people are not in school, and that of the 650 million primary school-age children that are, 250 million are not learning the basics.

Meanwhile, across the developed world, many edtech products are not yet making the educational impact many had hoped for. For instance, in 2015, an OECD report found that there was no noticeable improvement in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science in countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education. And in the US, only 33 per cent of parents surveyed by the Learning Assembly agreed that their child’s school did an “excellent” job of using technology to tailor instruction. The sector is not yet producing the sort of innovation that will bring about macro-level changes in how education is delivered across the globe to those with fewer resources.

A Key Ingredient

A key ingredient that could make a huge difference to this apparent lack of progress is the involvement of teachers in edtech development – educators are all too often left out of the picture by the current norms of the sector. In all the conferences I have attended around the world, I’m struck by the absence of teachers at edtech roundtables, discussions, and panels – which usually revolve around policymakers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs and investors. It’s a shame, since the conversations I have with teachers who are on the front line, in my experience, are always the most productive.

Teacher involvement is crucial, in part because one of the main reasons that many edtech initiatives fail is a lack of grounding in the real experience of students and teachers. Designers and developers often miss failings that would be obvious to those on the front line. By contrast, teachers know first-hand what students need, and what they themselves need as educators – a crucial element in the design process. They also understand the distinction between a superficial innovation and one that will actually help pupils, and they know how the education sector works from the inside.

Edtech’s Next Paradigm Shift

Now, trailblazing teachers are taking innovation into their own hands, bringing the knowledge and insight gleaned in the classroom to the world of edtech. This is a profoundly positive step, and there are good reasons to think that the next paradigm shift in edtech will come from teachers who combine their classroom practice with edtech development.

With such a large role to play, people are looking for teachers to enter this debate, and it was therefore heartening, but also no surprise, that last week’s event was oversubscribed, where we listened to Colin Hegarty and Emma Rogers tell their stories (pictured above; Colin middle, and Emma, left).

In 2011, while working as a maths teacher in London, Colin started making YouTube videos explaining important maths concepts for home study and revision, which eventually attracted millions of views from around the world and grew into Hegarty Maths – an online platform that teaches, assesses and tracks everything a child needs to learn in maths from upper primary to IGCSE level. Colin, a Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize Finalist, emphasized at the event how important it is for students to not only receive quality instruction, but for teachers to be supported in helping their students develop metacognitive awareness of how they study – which is why Hegarty Maths offers in-depth student tracking and analytics for teachers to use.

Similarly, Emma Rogers was a school Head of Department and a children’s writer and illustrator before founding Little Bridge, which helps children learn key English skills through its immersive digital world containing hundreds of carefully designed activities, stories and characters. Emma noted that too many products solve a problem that students and teachers don’t really have; her advice to attendees was to find an actual, specific problem – and then solve it.

Emma and Colin’s backgrounds were instrumental in how they developed their products, as is the case for Adam Still, a Teach First alumnus who recently founded Ripple Education, a digital lesson-planning tool designed squarely with teachers in mind. Adam observed that lesson planning – crucial for developing high-quality lessons and driving positive student outcomes – is currently a major time sink for teachers who tend to do it by themselves. Ripple’s easy-to-use and comprehensive platform aims to address this problem, freeing up precious time for teachers – who spend over 50% of their time outside the classroom – to let them do what they do best: teach.

A First Step

To encourage and support this growing trend of teachers using their expertise to build the next generation of edtech products, I will be guiding the new Tmrw Institute to help bring the worlds of education and technology together.

Founded by Sunny Varkey, the Institute will aim to increase teacher involvement in edtech, explore the edtech innovations that make the most difference, and tackle the problem of global education capacity using the best ideas from the edtech world.

Last week’s event was just the first step of our journey – hopefully it inspired and informed potential entrepreneurs and helped place teachers at the heart of edtech.

Vikas Pota is group chief executive of Tmrw Digital.

This article appeared on EdTech Digest on 1st October 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