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Learning Series: 2

January 2023

Corina Gardner

Chief Executive Officer

In this series, IDP Foundation reflects on new reports, events, articles, and key moments within education planning and discourse, asking questions of our partners and peers in order to learn and ideate on ways to improve the landscape and accelerate progress towards SDG 4.

We are at the half-way mark to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, yet education outcomes remain in crisis, as does the security and economic stability of much of the world. Growing learning poverty is being exacerbated by out of school numbers, malnutrition, population growth, and widening technology gaps, which all affect education’s ability to break intergenerational poverty, and in turn the economic growth of the world.

While gains have been made in primary enrolment rates in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to almost 100% since 2010 this has not been matched with similar trends in learning poverty (the rate at which 10-year-olds cannot read a simple text). Even before COVID-19 learning poverty was at crisis level with over half of all children in low- and middle-income countries having yet to gain basic literacy skills. Now with additional impacts of COVID-19 UNICEF’s 2022 updated State of Learning report predicts that number has increased to 70%, with even higher rates in Sub-Saharan Africa, at 90%. Without drastic change human capital in SSA will be devalued to the point that less than 1 in 10 learners will have basic literacy skills. This affects a person’s ability to easily receive information about health, access to services, rights, and greatly reduces future employability and therefore impacts every SDG goal.

If we consider the role of education, ultimately it is an incubator of the future health, security, and economic stability of the world. Without it no country can continue to function effectively, yet alone thrive. It’s reach and efficacy can be directly linked to the prosperity of a nation. Sub-Saharan Africa is full of potential thanks to being rich in natural resources and having a growing young population, yet its economic prosperity will not be fully realized with such high learning poverty rates. Improving the quality of education for all children in all settings is the only route to changing this picture. Simply getting children in classrooms is not enough, the right conditions for successful learning also need to be reached. But what are those conditions?

Across both state and non-state education exists a shared problem of children in school not learning. There are many factors that can influence successful learning such as classroom size and management, teacher support and training, child hunger, and attendance. In addition, gender bias, living in a conflict area, parental support, lack of access to learning materials and ICT resources, as well as teenage pregnancy are all likely contributors of low learning outcomes. So where do we start? To achieve real impact, we need to know what interventions work and what don’t, which means being innovative and experimenting as we work together to find the most effective solutions. The non-state sector can provide the agility that is required to be outcome rather than input focused, so that if an approach isn’t delivering the outcome, then the input must change. This highlights a distinct need to attract more funding to gather the evidence required to clearly understand the types of interventions that deliver measurable impact on learning outcomes. UNICEF’s recent Transforming Education with Equitable Financing report stated that the poorest benefit the least from public education funds. They reported that only 16% of public education funding goes to the poorest 20% of learners, while 28% goes to the richest 20% of learners.

If the efficacy of interventions in the public sector is marred by bureaucracy meaning change is too slow then it must be time to try a different approach before it really is too late. We need action as vehement and committed as our global response to the COVID-19 pandemic which means a universal awareness of the catastrophic potentional of the problem on future global poverty and a coordinated plan of action that utilizes all resources available and embraces public-private partnerships.

At World Bank’s global conference in May 2022 on Funding Education for Results, Rob Jenkins from UNICEF perfectly described the inertia we face when forming a committed response to the education crisis. He noted that while there may be a shared level of panic by education stakeholders when it comes to the learning crisis, it doesn’t get the same level of global attention or sense of urgency because “kids aren’t dying.” He also noted that this meant a key challenge was political motivation – and while there is some great activity happening by key decision-makers there is lots of inaction by others. Also present was Dr. Yaw Osei Adutwum, Ghana’s Minister of Education, who said, “The issue of urgency has never been higher for us as a nation. Research by Brookings Institution and other organizations before the pandemic were talking about bridging the gap between us and developed nations taking 100 years – if you are a minister of education in a country where someone is telling you that, there is a sense of urgency. Our goal is to do education right, so it is not just a question of access, but we are also talking about quality and the relevance of our education system, and how it can contribute to the socio-economic transformation of our nation.”

16% of public education funding goes to the poorest 20% of learners, while 28% goes to the richest 20% of learners.

If private philanthropy can leverage more funding by cross cutting the issues affecting learning outcomes, and the affordable non-state sector (ANS) can act as a hub of innovation, then this could lead to the creation of effective public goods. As learning poverty is a long-lead issue change won’t happen overnight, which means we need to get all hands-on deck now, and we need to spread them wide. Therefore, the most important question may be how do we do that? How do we engineer a coordinated effort to attract broad funding for interventions that can be trialed and tested in the ANS and scaled across all education settings?

Source: World Bank, UNICEF, World Economic Forum


If we can work together to increase investment in improving learning equitably and inclusively, capturing and sharing evidence, this can ease the burden on governments and equip foreign aid with a better understanding of what works. There are already a number of key actors who have shared ideas on what we should be working on and gathering evidence around, including Jaime Saavedra (Global Director, Education Global Practice), Stefania Giannini (UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education) Robert Jenkins, (Global Director, Education and Adolescent Development, UNICEF), Alicia Herbert (Director, Education, Gender and Equality Directorate, at FCDO), LeAnna Marr (Acting Deputy, Assistant Administrator, USAID) and, Benjamin Piper, (Head of Education, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). Collectively they have recommended the following practical steps:

·       Keeping schools open and increasing instruction time.

·       Correctly matching instruction to students’ levels of learning.

·       Focusing intensely on the foundations of literacy, numeracy, and core socio-emotional support.

·       Supporting teachers and giving them the tools they need to manage a more complex classroom and students with a diverse level of learning.

Is this list where we should prioritize? Are we missing anything crucial?

We know what children need from education to thrive as adults, and it starts with foundational learning. The UNICEF’s 2022 updated State of Learning report noted: “National commitments to education require that all actors align in the design and implementation of reforms with the sole objective of improving the education and wellbeing of children and youth—not the positions or interests of political parties or unions, nor the interest of suppliers, vendors, or providers, or any other education stakeholders, but only the interest of students.” If we are to put learners at the center of all our efforts in eradicating learning poverty, then what should our priorities as a connected education community be for 2023?

IDP Foundation doesn’t have all the answers, far from it. We call upon our partners, peers, allies, and all education players to share their initiatives, ideas, responses, and approaches. Together we can find the answers, ask the right questions, and work together to shift mindsets, recognize pitfalls, and ultimately ensure that no child loses.

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