March 8, 2012

A Shift in Focus from Education for All to Learning for All

Natalie Poulson - CGCE

It seems a long time since I romped around Bangladesh as an intern, visiting and researching non-formal primary schools.  As I sit at my desk in Ottawa, I often think of those kids. I remember their faces. I remember how eagerly they followed their teachers’ words. I remember the hope expressed by their parents for the future.

Where are those kids today?  What are they doing? Did the education they received live up to the expectations of the children who were so eager; their teachers who invested so much; their parents who made tough decisions to send their kids to school; their communities who built the infrastructure? Did we live up to the promises that we made?

I’ve come back to these questions now, hot on the heels of the successful Learning Forum that the Canadian Global Campaign for Education conducted last week.

This year’s theme examined the growing shift from Education for All (EFA)to Learning for All. The shift in the discourse among the education community is subtle. But dig deeper and it exposes some very profound questions about the effectiveness of what we have been doing, and where we should be focusing our energies moving forward.

The EFA goals emerged out of a meeting in Jomtien, Thailand, during the heady days of the United Nations international conferences of the 1990s. It achieved broad consensus that education was fundamental to human development and the long-term sustainable development of communities and nations. 

But when those goals were revisited in Dakar a decade later in 2000, the education community saw with some disappointment that despite this consensus, the goals had not mobilized the world into action.

There is no doubt that since 2000, the international community has kicked EFA into high gear. According to the 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report, an additional 52 million children enrolled in primary school from 1999 to 2008, and gender parity has made significant gains in regions that started the decade with the greatest gaps. When compared to some of the other Millennium Development Goals, such as improving maternal health, the success in education paints a rosy picture.

Perhaps it is this relatively rosy picture - of smiling children in freshly pressed school uniforms - that has allowed us to become complacent. Perhaps it is the pressing needs of the other Millennium Development Goals that has allowed us to shift our attention away from what is happening in schools around the world.

Truth be told, despite scaled-up international investments, much of the progress in EFA has been because of country-level investments in education. Donor governments have failed to contribute their fair share of the $16 billion required annually to achieve the education goals, while many of the world’s poorest countries now dedicate upwards of 20% of their national budget to education, and 50% of this to basic education. This is a significant investment that countries – and families - continue to make, despite harrowing economic times.  

As a result, millions of more children now have access to education. The evidence of education’s positive impact on health, agriculture, democratic governance, and other sectors is also overwhelming.

But are we closing the gap?

The fact remains that in Sub-Saharan Africa, 10 million children still drop out of primary school each year.  In India, only 18% of rural students could read a text designed for Grade Two students after eight years of schooling.


Because the focus has been on quantitative targets - bums in seat – rather than the most elusive, subjective EFA goal – quality of education.

As a result, quality has become the new imperative. We need to ensure that the education we are providing, that we are promising, is an education of good quality that equips learners with the skills to take advantage of every bit of information and grasp every opportunity that comes their way.  As our forum guest Anna Christine Grellert from World Vision Latin America noted, in the end the sustainability of development resides not with donors and governments, but with people who have the skills to transform their lives.

So does access no longer matter?

There was a lot of discussion at the Learning Forum about this apparent tension between learning and equity. To shift entirely to a learning agenda would mean targeting those who are already enrolled and continuing to bypass the most disadvantaged.

Is there a trade off to be negotiated? The resounding answer of participants was no. Without learning there is no equity.

It has been a long road from Jomtien to Dakar to today, with many successes to celebrate. But the road ahead is just as long. Times have changed, requiring us to undertake a more sophisticated analysis of the shifting educational needs within each country. The education community needs an actionable agenda moving forward - an agenda that addresses the essential issues of quality and equity through learning. The challenges are many, not least of which is the fact that issues of quality are perhaps the hardest to define meaningfully, measure and demonstrate in the short-term.

It is no longer enough to say that education is a human right and to provide access. Learning must be our promise to the world’s children. It will require a long-term investment, but it’s a promise worth keeping.

Natalie Poulson is the Coordinator of the Canadian Campaign for Global Education. To see where Canadian aid to education is going, please see CGCE’s recent analysis.

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