Achieving universal primary education: A way forward for developing countries

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Monday, 6 October 2014 17:20 GMT

Julia Gillard, chair of the board of directors of GPE, opens the Second Replenishment Pledging Conference of the Global Partnership for Education, June 25 and 26, 2014, Brussels, Belgium, hosted by the European Union. Credit: GPE/Mark Hens

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Aid for education has declined dramatically in recent years – by 10 percent between 2010 and 2012

“Many developing countries are experimenting with new ideas and approaches that show promise. But we have to understand that, in many countries around the world, there is very little available to support basic educational instruction. They need to be able to walk before they can run,” explained Julia Gillard, chair of the board of directors of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

In an interview with Gillard, a former Australian prime minister and minister for education, we discussed the international imperative of achieving universal primary education for all children, challenges to progress, innovative solutions to accelerate change, and much more.

Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to become the Board Chair of the Global Partnership for Education earlier this year.

I know from my own personal experience what a difference an education can make. My father, one of seven children growing up in a poor Welsh coal mining village, wasn't able to finish school or go on to college or university. In search of better opportunities for my sister and me, my mother and father decided to migrate with us to Australia. In our new home of Adelaide, my sister and I attended quality government schools and received a great education. Without it, I would not be who I am today – personally and professionally.

Consequently, education has always been something I’ve felt passionate about. I first campaigned for better education when I was at university. Then, before I became Prime Minister, I was Australia’s Education Minister. In both offices, I made it a priority to deliver reforms across our entire education system, with the aim of making quality learning more accessible and affordable to all of our citizens.

So when I moved out of political life last year, I wanted to continue to advocate for education. That’s why I was so excited to be invited to become the Board Chair of the Global Partnership for Education, which is the only multilateral organization solely committed to strengthening primary education in developing countries.

With 58 million children out of school worldwide, and another 250 million children unable to read, write or master simple math, how do we even begin to tackle this international challenge?

As with any big challenge, it’s essential to identify the root problems and commit to solving them. That’s essentially what happened in 2000 when the international community agreed to reach the Millennium Development Goals, including Goal 2 which aims to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Considering there were more than 100 million primary school-aged children out of school in 2000, there’s actually been some remarkable progress since then.

But we are far from being done, and recent progress has been slow. A key focus for the future has to be equity – ensuring that all children receive a quality education irrespective of whether they are girls or boys, reside in urban or rural areas, live with or without disabilities, belong to marginalized communities or not. Policies and minds still need to change in order to direct resources to those who need them most.

Through the Global Partnership for Education, there is now more funding available to strengthen education systems in more developing countries. That funding comes not only from wealthier donor governments, but also from developing countries themselves, which have steadily increased their own education spending.

What kinds of efforts are currently underway to address these gaps, and are they making any progress?

One key ingredient to success is what we like to call the power of partnership. The Global Partnership for Education is a prime example of how bringing together many different partners around agreed priorities has enormous impact. We’ve seen that the partnership model brings about more efficient spending of education budgets, improves coordination among humanitarian responses and development work, and drives greater accountability through the involvement of civil society.

As a result of this partnership work, many developing countries have been building stronger and sustainable education systems that deliver more reliable, consistent education to more children than they could ever before. Many still have a long way to go, but there is a clear and positive trajectory.

The Global Partnership is also about to launch a new way to fund developing countries, and we think it will make a huge difference. Our new results-based funding model incentivizes developing countries to implement better education policies, collect education data for better analysis, improve education quality and increase their own education budgets. The funding only flows in full if the developing country can show its education reforms are getting results.

Do we need new kinds of solutions, for example focused on technology, or should the effort be placed on more traditional methods such as building schools and training teachers?

First, we have to be sure the basics are in place. That includes trained and committed teachers, safe and accessible school buildings, strong, culturally appropriate curricula and efficiently run school systems. With those elements, children can learn to read, do math and begin to exercise their minds in ways that will propel them throughout life.

While this is not a new approach, it is certainly the foundation that made the education systems strong in so many countries around the world. So, for now, our first objective is to enable developing countries to put that basic infrastructure in place.

That’s not to say there is no room for new technologies and innovations that can enhance learning. They can be very powerful, if introduced at the right time with the right support. Many developing countries are experimenting with new ideas and approaches that show promise. But we have to understand that, in many countries around the world, there is very little available to support basic educational instruction. They need to be able to walk before they can run.

What's standing in the way of progress, and what needs to happen for things to change?

First, it’s troubling that donor country aid for education has declined dramatically in recent years – by 10 percent between 2010 and 2012. That’s 10 times the rate of decline of overall development aid.

This trend occurred even as developing countries have put more of their own resources into their education systems. At the Global Partnership’s replenishment conference this year, 27 developing countries pledged to increase their own education budgets by a collective US$26 billion between 2015 and 2018 – an increase of 25%. So what kind of signal does it send them when wealthier countries back away from education?

Second, nearly half of the 58 million out-of-school children worldwide live in fragile and conflict-affected areas. These are by definition the toughest places to work, which is why the Global Partnership has made it a priority to focus on keeping education strong in fragile countries. Fifty-two percent of the Partnership’s funding in 2013 went to fragile and conflict-affected countries.

Third, as I mentioned before, we need to focus on equity to ensure that all children – without exception -- have access to quality learning. We have seen some great progress, but we’re far from where we want to be.