Can the Recommendations of the Education Commission Report Lead to Real Gains?

As Caine Rolleston pointed out in a recent RISE blog, education is complicated and the existing body of research into how to improve things is very scant on evidence for educational interventions that have large and reliable improvements on outcomes. This makes it difficult for policymakers, donors, etc., to know how to make a difference and hard for the research community to be heard convincingly in the policy arena.

Partly in response to this, there has been a growing focus on generating good research evidence to guide reform.  The RISE Programme exists to answer the question: “What works to improve education systems to deliver better learning for all at scale in developing countries?” and other programmes and organisations have come into existence to try and gather good evidence to help inform and drive change. The Cambridge-based Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre researches into overcoming the barriers to education that exist and what makes sustainable reform so difficult. The group recently hosted an event to discuss the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity’s report The Learning Generation: Investing in Education for a Changing World.

At first sight it may seem odd that an educational research institution should highlight a report on finance and investment. This apparent disconnect epitomises the changes in education research that are happening and the very real need for systemic investigations focused on solutions that also incorporate the financial and political economy aspects so important within any given context. The Commission tellingly defines its mandate as: “to identify the most effective and accountable ways of mobilizing and deploying resources to help ensure that all children and young people have the opportunity to participate, learn and gain the skills they need for adulthood and work in the 21st century.”

This is recognition that it is not enough to just mobilise funds, but that there is a need to efficiently use those funds; otherwise huge investments and increases in enrolment, teacher numbers, etc. can lead to no, or even negative, outcomes in learning (as the report acknowledges p.115). The panel certainly felt that this new era, as they saw it, of a more focused research which also takes a broader, systemic view point, offered the potential to break free of stagnation and lead to real gains – not just in learning outcomes, but the economic and social benefits that flow from those.

Do I share their enthusiasm? Do I think that good research can overcome the compromises needed in real life, especially the often highly politicised world of education? In a time of the rise of populism over evidence, I think this will be a real challenge, but as panel member Luis Benveniste of the World Bank reminded us, Singapore is a fantastic example of an initially poor country with no natural resources using education, and a strong political will and vision, to drive that change and bring prosperity to its citizens. There are leaders in Africa and around the world who are putting education at the top of the agenda and wanting to emulate this transformation. Will they succeed? Will they set an example for others to follow? Only time will tell, but at least they are starting to get better research that does not only identify the problems and barriers, but how to move past them and, in this latest report, how to effectively fund this–so yes, I do feel optimistic and maybe, just maybe, we are standing at the beginning of a global change led by education.

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