The sustainable development goals agreed by world leaders include a commitment to ensure that all young people have access to good quality primary and lower secondary education by 2030. The goals include a pledge that no one will be left behind. Reaching these goals will require improved educational quality for the most disadvantaged children from the earliest years. Worldwide, 250 million children do not have even basic numeracy and literacy skills. In rural parts of India and Pakistan, only one in five children aged 10 and 11, who should have spent five years in school, have achieved minimum learning standards. It is clear that education systems require urgent reform. To date, governments, schools and teachers have tended to focus on the more advantaged, able children. For systems to close educational inequalities, they must focus on the needs of more disadvantaged children. Here are five steps to achieve this.
Address disadvantage from early childhood
Hardship associated with poverty affects learning even before children start primary school, and those who encounter difficulties early on face an uphill struggle to catch up. Early childhood education helps to redress this: attending at least one year of pre-school has an average benefit for learning that is equivalent to at least one formal year of schooling in Argentina, Australia, Brazil and Germany. In Argentina, the impact is twice as large for poorer students. To benefit fully from education, children must also start school at the right age (in two-thirds of countries, six years old is the common starting age for primary education). A report on access to education found that in countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where the official entry age is commonly six or seven years old, the poorest children are especially likely to start school over age; and over-age children are found to be less likely to learn than other children in their class grade.
Ensure teaching is at the right pace for the weakest learners
One reason why so many children spend time in school without progressing is overly ambitious and inflexible curricula. Education interventions aimed at basic literacy and numeracy skills for children who have fallen behind curricular expectations show that they can improve rapidly with the right support. In an intervention in India, community teachers spent half of each school day working on basic skills with the lowest achieving children in grades three and four (ages eight to 10); a year later, these children achieved better learning outcomes than 54% of children who did not receive this support.
Provide disadvantaged children with the best teachers
In many countries, inadequate training of teachers is holding back children’s learning. In Mali and Niger, training for teachers led to major improvements in early-grade reading: while no students could initially read at least 21 letters, 49% could after four months’ teaching, compared to just 2% after a year of instruction by teachers who did not receive the training. In addition, the best teachers are often not reaching schools where they are most needed. Vietnam is one country that has addressed this: teachers of more disadvantaged children are actually absent less often, provide feedback more regularly, and are slightly more likely to have received “excellent teacher” status.
Provide learning resources to help children progress at an appropriate pace
Learning materials will only be effective if they are accessible to children in the classroom, are pitched at the right level and in the right language, and teachers are trained to use them. A computer-based tool in India that tailored learning materials according to children’s current learning levels increased test scores in mathematics for the average child, to exceed 69% of children in the comparison group.
Empower parents and communities to hold schools and policymakers to account
To implement measures aimed at raising learning outcomes and overcoming inequalities, households and communities need to be able to hold policymakers and school leaders to account. In Indonesia, interventions aimed at increasing school committees’ authority and introducing elections of committee members lifted the average child’s learning in the Indonesian language. Special measures can be potentially powerful, but care must be taken to empower the disadvantaged within communities. In Mali, for example, increasing the power of local governance empowered some groups, but further isolated nomadic groups.
Governments must put in place ambitious reforms aimed at targeting the learning of the most disadvantaged. Only if they implement concrete steps will we have any chance of achieving real progress towards leaving no one behind by 2030.
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 Guardian International Development page on 22 September 2015.
Twitter: Pauline Rose – @PaulineMRose