Kate Dooley, Chief Executive Officer of Education Partnerships Group (EPG), talks with Zoe Bozzolan-Kenworthy about how governments can shape their educational systems to meet the changing needs of learners.
Zoe Bozzolan-Kenworthy: “A school is a place where we prepare ourselves for the real world.” Would you agree with this message from a 16-year-old girl from Malaysia, who was asked in a recent UNICEF poll about the importance of schools reopening?
Kate Dooley: We can all agree with that aspiration. But the reality is that as many as nine out of 10 children in low-income countries can’t read with the expected proficiency by age 10. We’re not getting the basics right. This was a learning crisis before the pandemic, and now, with Covid-related school closures and learning losses, we face an even more critical challenge for global education. Tackling this is particularly difficult in resource-constrained environments, and overwhelming for both learners and teachers.
Distance learning allowed some children to stay engaged in education at home, and working with digital tools can help prepare children for the real world, which is going through a global technological and digital revolution. In low-income countries, however, there is limited or no access to the internet, power or electronic devices, so there’s no avoiding the need for systems reform to address the learning crisis. Without basic literacy and numeracy, children won’t be prepared for work or realise their full potential as adults.
“Without basic literacy and numeracy, children won’t be prepared for work or realise their full potential as adults.”
ZB: How can education systems adapt to equip children for the future?
KB: A lot of governments we work with are asking themselves that question. As 21st-century skills become more important, governments across Sub-Saharan Africa have shifted to competency-based curricula. Thinking analytically and critically, for example, is increasingly important in a complex world in which people need to engage beyond their immediate community, potentially move across borders, work internationally through technology, and adapt to an uncertain world.
But governments must also ensure that learners build foundational literacy and numeracy skills as a basis for their broader education. There is no silver bullet for solving that challenge. Governments and their partners need to work holistically across the entire education system to align curriculum, teacher training, assessment, and other policies in order to bring coherence and make efficient use of limited resources. A lot of change is required, but given those limited resources, efforts need to be sequenced – and how to do that depends on local needs and contexts. Governments must be systematic about diagnosing challenges, prioritising and sequencing their reform efforts, and drawing on evidence about what works in the context of their system, also taking into account the contributions of development partners and non-state schools. Crucially, they need systems that create feedback loops and accountability.
“There is no single scientific answer to improving learning outcomes across all contexts.”
ZB: So there is no one-size-fits-all solution?
KD: There’s often a tendency to compare global education to global health, as both are large, complex service-delivery systems. There is a rigorous evidence-based approach to developing solutions in health systems around the world, but there is no single scientific answer to improving learning outcomes across all contexts. There’s no vaccine for lack of literacy and numeracy.
But we do know how to educate children globally. The challenge is in mobilising what works, pursuing that systematically, and maintaining public and political support for reform over the long period it will take to yield substantial improvements in learning. EPG is dedicated to supporting governments in meeting this challenge, partnering with them to gather and use evidence, design and implement policies, and pilot creative solutions within ministries of education.
ZB: Can you give us some idea of what has worked at a policy level?
KD: While universal access to education, which was one of the Millennium Development Goals, has been achieved in many countries, it’s one thing to have children in school but another for them to actually learn when they are there. There’s a lot of evidence about specific localised interventions, but little about impact at significant scale.
Some interventions hold considerable promise, such as the Teaching at the Right Level programme. In that programme, children are grouped according to their learning level and need rather than age, and teaching is adapted accordingly, with a focus on literacy and numeracy. Evidence has also emerged to underscore the importance of enabling school leaders and teachers to make their own decisions about resource allocations, as they best understand the needs of their learners. At EPG, we run an Instructional Leadership Institute in the Western Cape province in South Africa, for example, which is focused on supporting head teachers by empowering them as exemplars for their teaching staff and as decision makers who can create a school culture focused on successful instruction and performance.
“Education is the most powerful tool we have for changing mindsets, traditions, and attitudes.”
Policy coherence is important and too often lacking. We have been partnering with the Ministry of Basic and Secondary School Education in Sierra Leone to address this issue by sequencing the reform effort, supporting coordination across policy teams, and ensuring that, for example, the government’s flagship Radical Inclusion policy is aligned with the school subsidies policy and school accountability approach and that teacher workforce reforms are aligned with the objectives of the Radical Inclusion policy.
In low-income countries, we often find that there is either an absence of policy or incomplete policy, so robust policy propositions may exist but are just not being implemented. Implementation planning is critical to ensure that the policy intent can be achieved in practice. EPG regularly works with our partner governments on this challenge.
ZB: Can education alone bring about a generational mind shift, by breaking through traditions and attitudes to transform a society?
KD: There’s no doubt that education is the most powerful tool we have for changing mindsets, traditions, and attitudes – but it doesn’t just come from schools. If education is truly equipping learners to form their own opinions, articulate their values, and analyse the world around them critically, then it can be incredibly effective and powerful for shifting mindsets, traditions, and behaviours over time. Young people increasingly have technology in their lives, so ideas from all over the world can be rapidly accessed, shared, and cultivated. There’s no question that societies are changing more quickly as a result.
ZB: Where are we now?
Kate: A huge challenge for global education today is that millions of children either were out of school for long periods or had their learning disrupted significantly by the pandemic. In resource-constrained low- and middle-income countries, making up for Covid learning losses will be difficult or impossible. Teachers are under enormous pressure – working longer hours, working in shifts, working on weekends, trying to catch learners up. But inevitably, they’re going to lag behind.
Everyone we work with in ministries of education is acutely aware of that challenge, but it is difficult to find ways to respond in a world of scarce resources. Some are attempting to adapt the curriculum, to add extra catch-up classes or remedial programmes. But overwhelmingly, schools and teachers have carried on with the set curriculum. We at EPG worry that this may leave many children behind, causing them to drop out again in future. Governments have a critical role in shaping and strengthening these systems so they are better able to adapt to changing local, national, and global circumstances and the needs of learners.