Its progress we rarely acknowledge. Today across the world, in savannah and steppe and in city and village, most children will go to school. A few decades ago, this was a pipe dream. Access to education is a hard-fought human right which makes our world a better place. It is an accelerator for every other form of progress in any society. For example, half of the global reduction in child mortality over the past 20 years is attributable to the first generation of mothers in many poor countries receiving an education. A third of the world’s poorest girls continue to be out of school with huge societal costs. In total, 9% of the world’s children still don’t go to school. By 2030 we must achieve the goal of basic access to universal education.
Now the global discourse is expanding from access to quality and relevance of what children learn. From this lens, global education is in a learning crisis. 53% of children in low and middle income countries cannot read a basic text by the time they are 10. This is a benchmark described by the World Bank as learning poverty. Education spending has increased in many low and middle countries. Yet it is not directed towards the poorest children who need it the most. In low income countries, almost half of education budgets go to the wealthiest 10%. Against a background of fast-paced technological change in the labour market, poorer children will be left behind.
We now know that brain development is most prolific before the age of 5. Primary and secondary school are hugely important, but not the most impactful institutions for social, emotional and cognitive development of the child. The family in infancy and then pre-school from 3-6 years of age yield the most influence on learning and life outcomes. Yet, the poorest families have little guidance on early stimulation and brain development. Research has shown that 3 year olds from families on welfare hear around 600 words an hour. Those from professional families hear over 2000. This gap in language acquisition is an indicator of huge inequality even before the child enters pre-school.
Such early disparity could most obviously be addressed by a pre-school education starting at 3, as the child’s brain continues to develop rapidly. But in many countries most poor children just do not go to pre-school. The gap in pre-school access between the wealthiest 20% and poorest 20% is vast. The OECD Pisa survey shows that much later at 15 you can see the outcome of this early inequality. 15 year olds who attended pre-school are on average between one and two years ahead in maths science and language. Together, these early disparities drive an intergenerational cycle of poverty. This harms the individual child, exacerbates inequity and undermines economic and social development.
Even many well-resourced primary and secondary education systems in wealthy countries struggle to keep pace in a changing world. Education reform is never a progression from one static position to another. It is an evolution constantly informed by two streams of change. The first is the changing labour markets and civic culture Education should prepare citizens contribute and gain from progress and prosperity. The second is our growing knowledge of brain development and how children learn. Systems creak and move slowly, and despite the amazing dedication of most teachers, schools are behind the curve on both counts.
All research shows the one thing that drives good education outcomes is the performance of teachers. Yet stakeholders including unions, parents and parliamentarians often focus on structural issues like class size or teaching hours rather than teaching itself. Children learn from teachers they love and who inspire a passion for their curiosity. The 20% of children affected by multiple traumas at home cannot learn at all unless the teacher provides a sense of safety, calm and belonging.
Most countries do not have a system to recruit high calibre teachers, keep them motivated and developing in step with a changing world. Many spend less than 1 % of their education budgets on in-service development. They are teaching for a moving target. A glance at todays vacancy pages shows jobs that did not exist when I started school millions of years ago. Teachers should be preparing children for jobs that don’t exist yet, and for working lives with much greater change than we have known before. Teachers need to shift from teaching kids stuff to teaching them how to think and create stuff. Children also need to learn how to learn and to be inspired to keep learning throughout the life course. For good citizenship they need media literacy too. Many countries are not adequately making these obvious changes happen. Pink Floyd railed against authoritarian teachers in the 70s. Today the threat is “authority-less” teachers with kids checking their smart phones in class to see if what the teacher is saying is up to date.
No public service institution can keep up with the pace of start-ups and tech. No country can address the learning crisis without engagement of the private sector. No private sector can flourish without a properly equipped workforce. Each needs each other, yet there is so little collaboration between them.
Both our evolving knowledge of adolescent brain development and of the labour market lead us to the same conclusion. The most relevant and rewarding way for a teenager to learn is through collaboration with peers in developing a creative solution to a problem. Yet most classrooms do not and cannot practice this.
Rutger Bremen questioned the mantra about educating children to find their place in the labour market of tomorrow. Instead he argued we should educate children to create the kind of labour market and society we would like them to live in. School informs character development, whether we intend it to or not. Inclusive moral and civic learning is a prerequisite for individual and societal flourishing. The UK-based Jubilee Centre has developed a framework for teaching integrity, respect, neighbourliness alongside core performance and intellectual competencies. The framework is being adopted in UK schools, and adapted oversees.
To address the global learning crisis we need to make sure that children are ready for three big transitions. The first is school readiness at 5 or 6. This requires narrowing the gap in early learning. All parents should receive knowledge of early stimulation through pre-existing primary health networks, at the same time they learn about vaccines and nutrition. We should pursue universal access to pre-school for 3-6 year olds as we have pursued access to primary and secondary education. Governments should invest at least 10% of their education budgets in early learning. They should also end the huge wealth disparity in pre-school attendance.
The second transition is at age 10. We need to eradicate learning poverty by ensuring that all children can read a basic text at 10. More than anything else, this will depend on the quality of teaching. We need behavioural science innovations to keep teachers motivated and systems where teaching practice can be informed by the evolving science of learning. Schools need to be trauma-informed so children affected by family or humanitarian trauma can be soothed, feel safe and make the important connections required to enable learning. Inclusion and gender-responsive school systems are also essential to end learning poverty.
The third transition is at 16 or 18 to work, training or higher education. This is about the relevance of education to both the labour marker and citizenship. We need a global commitment for teaching competencies, collaboration and character in an age of AI and fast-paced technological change..The public sector cannot achieve this alone and needs innovative financing and constructive technical collaboration with the private sector. As has happened in Finland, the teaching workforce needs to become an agile community of practice. This would enable it to adjust and develop teaching based on what it sees in the classroom and in the outside world. Creativity and collaboration needs to be at the heart of teaching.
Wherever we are, in addressing the learning crisis, our aspirations must be high. On the one hand we should work toward a world in which our children and then their children have a quality of life that is better than the one we had. On the other to ensure that they shape a society that is even fairer, kinder and a better place to live. Only a radical rethink of global education will help us get there. We owe our children nothing less.
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