Why Empowering Schools and Examining Systems Needs All-Hands-on-Deck Societies: Reflecting on Schools2030 Global Forum
Attending the Schools2030 Global Forum earlier this month in Tanzania, it was clear to me, and my fellow attendees, how valuable this space is for reflection, learning and collaboration. It encourages all-hands-on-deck to reimagine how stakeholders might work better together to achieve SDG4 by 2030. This goal is understandably ambitious, and therefore uniting the forces of all stakeholders is an absolute must, made more attainable by events such as this. I also found myself discovering many areas of alignment between the event’s thematic focus on how best to link schools, systems, and societies for the future of learning in policy, research and practice and the work that IDP Foundation has undertaken in Ghana over the past decade with low-fee private schools, and our mission to champion the benefits of a mixed economy of education provision.
The forum’s key focus on the outcomes of education at a learner level, rather than a preoccupation with structures of learning at an input level, was very refreshing to hear. At IDP Foundation, we believe the most important lens for any innovations in education and education financing should be focused on the outcomes for every pupil in all settings, both state and non-state.
As highlighted by Vishal Tareja, CEO, Dream a Dream in India, in the second opening plenary session, if schools are to equip all learners with the key skills to succeed in today’s dynamic world, there needs to be targeted investment in evidence-gathering on what works, and what doesn’t. And this means starting with foundational learning and working upwards. It also means understanding the educational landscape at a national level, and ensuring innovations are rolled out to serve all pupils in all sectors of the diverse ecosystem that exists today.
The affordable non-state education sector (ANS) is not only a key contributor to educating the school-age population across the developing world, but its share of the landscape is likely to keep growing – particularly low-fee private schools who are bridging the gap between the rich and the poor. As I reflect on the many learners from marginalized and underserved communities accessing low-fee private schools supported by IDP Foundation, I can see how crucial it is for stakeholders to pay attention to the nuanced backgrounds of all learners, in all settings, as we consider the key indicators for measuring how we support meaningful learning and skills for the future.
These thoughts were further highlighted during day two of the forum, as key innovations for success were discussed, which are central to the work that IDPF undertakes. In addition to the reality of low-fee private schools serving a sizable segment of pupils in LMICs and LICs, they also lend the perfect environment for trialing innovations through public private partnerships. Talk of promoting teacher and pupil innovation as one way to finding solutions to classroom challenges at events such as Schools2030 is hugely encouraging to hear. However, I would hope that these innovations will ultimately benefit all school settings. I would also argue that now is the time to look at non-state players as integral partners when we think of how best to link schools, systems, and societies. As part of this process, we need to create an enabling environment for classrooms to be hubs of innovation. As the Schools2030 initiative has engaged 1,000 government schools – mostly remote and marginalized, with low learning outcomes, sparse resources, and limited access to education technologies – there is also a need to recognize that schools in the affordable non-state sector share similar characteristics, and can also serve as key innovation hubs. Therefore, all stakeholders in this sector need to be intentional in their lobbying, to ensure that non-state schools contribute to driving effective innovations for low to no connectivity, and that there is cross-sharing of evidence and roll-out of effective programs across all sectors. This integrated approach is key to system strengthening. At the forum we heard how critical striving to achieve the ‘leaving no one behind agenda’ is, and I would add that this requires a recognition of the mixed education economy, and an integration of all schools into a varied ecosystem governed with a tailored program of support.
Currently IDP Foundation works with key local partners to support independent low-fee private schools through access to finance and management/teacher training, because we recognize the need to support pupils in real time and not to wait until systems catch up. If education is a public good and ultimately serves to create better citizens and therefore improved economies for all, as we heard at the forum from the Hon. Prof. Adolf Mkenda, Minister of Education, Tanzania, then all actors both state and non-state need to join forces as we all focus on the same SDG4 outcome.
There was also talk of how we measure what matters in the support of meaningful learning and skills development for the future. This requires assessment and evidence, and must include all stakeholders, both state and non-state. When the discussion turned to inclusive education, the Hon. Prof. Joao Costa, Minister of Education, Portugal noted that all should mean all, and that there are many children who are not included because of their perceived circumstances. When we talk about all pupils, including those with varying needs, we must also talk about those in varying educational settings. If we mean to be intentional about inclusion, we should ensure that we invest in strengthening data collection systems for all learners, irrespective of which schools serve them. It is refreshing to see the National Schools Inspectorate Authority of Ghana leading a nationwide schools registration campaign aimed at ensuring all schools are accounted for, and that quality standards are kept in state and non-state settings. In the same vein, the full rollout of the National Standardized Test (NST) in Ghana should include both public and private schools.
I strongly agree with the sentiment that assessment must be focused on improving learning both at the school level, as well as at the system level – and this dual approach is a key driving strategy for the work of IDP Foundation. Working with schools in real-time, gathering evidence of what is working and what isn’t and applying this learning at a systems level seems to be smart – if the methodology accounts for all sectors of the mixed education economy. At IDP Foundation, taking a parallel approach to supporting schools now and advocating for system change is central to our work.
During day two of the forum, we focused on the future of design and innovation in education. I was engaged by the narrative from Asyia Kamzi at Gates Foundation, around a need for humility of actors who seek to improve schools by ensuring a localized approach to design, whereby those on the front line can drive innovation. This, as Dr Christopher Thomas, Director of Partnerships at the Yidin Prize Foundation noted, means ensuring that addressing inclusion means asking the question, who are the hardest to reach? Those best placed to answer are in the field, on the front lines of education.
So, what does this mean for funders? Priority must be placed on listening to beneficiaries, alongside a commitment to making the process as smooth as possible for all parties when working in coalitions. We need to recognize that the solution is a jigsaw puzzle, and philanthropy is one piece. As Dr Simon Sommer co-CEO of Jacobs Foundation pointed out, there is no one foundation or organization that can single-handedly achieve systems change in education on an international or even national level. However, philanthropy can and does contribute significantly to systems transformation. The fact that philanthropy can act independently of political constraints means its contribution to systems transformation is unique, with the power to build bridges and change dynamics. A key point from Dr Sommer that really resonated was the impact that philanthropy can have when foundations are willing and dedicated to partner with governments, national education systems, multilateral organizations, and other funders, to create a collective force that can transform education systems. The backbone of IDP Foundation’s theory of change is to work through partnerships and coalitions to create effective school-based programs, and to collectively influence system reform, at both the national and international level.
It was great to hear from all the speakers at Schools2030 Global Forum, and IDP Foundation looks forward to the continuing conversations and being part of an education collective with representatives from all sectors of the mixed education economy, all driven by the common goal of meeting SDG4. Sharing knowledge, working in coalitions, focusing on pupils, and recognizing the varied education landscape as we look at the role of schools, systems, and societies in this new era of education is crucial. If we are all striving for the same impact, surely we will get there quicker if we work together?
We would love to hear your thoughts on Schools2030, and how we can reimagine the roles of schools, systems and societies in improving educational outcomes for all children.