A stepping-stones approach to leaving no one behind in learning

To ensure the rhetoric of leaving no one behind becomes a reality, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) give rise to an important practical question: how can we monitor progress to ensure we know if we have been successful?

As our new DFID-funded paper for HEART shows, it is vital that the commitment to leaving no one behind translates into tracking progress for the most disadvantaged groups, and the gap between these groups and the most advantaged. Such tracking needs to include interim targets to provide an early warning signal before the more distant target of 2030. These ‘stepping stones’, as Kevin Watkins has coined it, are further beneficial as they allow interim targets to be linked to each country’s starting point, taking account of the different speed of progress needed in different contexts.

Focusing on the sub-target on achieving equitable learning by the end of primary school (associated with target 4.1), our paper shows that establishing stepping stone targets is both desirable and feasible, although not without its challenges. To illustrate how it can be done, we:

One: Use a measure of whether children are learning the basics in mathematics and reading by age 12, by which age children would be expected to have completed at least five grades of primary schooling in most countries. We define the basics as the ability to perform division and to read a short story. Our approach has the advantage of being straightforward to communicate, and is a comparable measure for ensuring that children are achieving the foundations for further learning. This is a target that ought to be achievable for all children, regardless of where they live.

Two: Use household survey data collected by the People’s Action for Learning Network (ASER in India and Pakistan, and UWEZO in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), which surveys children regardless of whether they are in school.

Three: Track the trajectory of gaps in learning within countries. For illustrative purposes, we focus on wealth groups within countries, which are a key driver of learning inequalities, and for which comparable measures are available across the countries. We thus provide separate projections for the poorest and wealthiest quintiles.

Four: Adopt a linear function for our projections of learning for the poorest and richest groups, while recognising that it is unlikely that any country would progress in such a neat fashion and that other assumptions could be made (for example, progress could be slower at the outset in countries where strategies need to be put in place; or, alternatively, may be faster early on when the learning of those easier-to-reach improves).

Taking rural India as an example (where data over a longer period of time are available), progress for 12-year-olds learning the basics over the past decade has, if anything, declined. The gap between learning of the rich and poor has remained relatively stable, with children from rich households being almost 30-percentage points more likely to be learning the basics than the poorest.

Using a stepping stone target every five years to chart progress, the proportion of rich children in rural areas who have learned the basics would need to increase by 18 percentage points during each interim period. The challenge is even greater for poor, rural children: we would need to see an increase of 26 percentage points between each stepping stone – a massive increase given the limited progress that has been made in recent years.

This would mean more than doubling the proportion that are learning the basics between the current period and 2020, to reach around half of poor, rural children learning the basics by that date. This clearly illustrates the immense challenge in achieving even this relatively modest target of ensuring all children can read with understanding and answer basic maths questions by the time they should have completed primary school.

Adopting stepping stone targets to ensuring all 12-year-olds are learning the basics in reading and mathematics by 2030

Adopting stepping stone targets to ensuring all 12-year-olds are learning the basics in reading and mathematics by 2030

The graphs show the percentage who have learned the basics over time for the period 2005-2030

The picture is similarly ambitious for rural Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania and India, with steep improvements in learning needed for all children, particularly the poorest, in each of these countries. Given how far removed this is from the ‘business as usual’ state of no change in recent years, these targets should send a stark message about the need for a step-change in strengthening the quality of education in the coming years, and need for governments to prioritise resources and strategies towards ensuring the most disadvantaged are learning the basics by 2030.

By Pauline Rose & Ben Alcott – This post is written by Pauline Rose and Ben Alcott in the Research for Equitable Access and Learning Centre at the University of Cambridge, based on their newly-released paper for the UK Department for International Development on ‘How Education Systems can become Equitable by 2030’.

Originally posted on the Post2015.org website on 25 August 2015, it is the sixteenth in the Post2015 blog series which aims to explore how the Sustainable Development Goals can be implemented to include all social and economic groups.

Twitter: Pauline Rose – @PaulineMRose



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