Last year, the Education Commission made an incredible discovery. While countries across the globe, as a whole, were headed down a concerning path – one where in 2030 more than half of young people worldwide will not have the skills needed for a job – others were bucking the trend. They were outliers: countries moving at faster rates of progress for early childhood education, learning, and skills training.
Some countries were poor, others were rich. Some were high-performers, others were moving fast but starting at very low levels. Why were Tunisia and Vietnam spending the same amount of money on education – but 30% more Vietnamese students could read at age ten than Tunisian children?
The Commission searched the globe to identify what characteristics drove faster rates of progress in education systems facing similar obstacles. We wanted to know what these schools, communities, and countries were doing differently – and how we could get others to adopt proven, successful strategies. This was the basis for recommendations in the Learning Generation report. If all countries move at the rates of the top 25% in their income bracket, in one generation low-income countries could be performing at the level of richer countries today.
The Commission highlighted several characteristics of the fastest improvers. One was a sense of constant improvement and accountability. In these instances, systems were using data to drive decision-making and holding actors within the system – from schools to governments to households – accountable. Additionally, we found that the fastest improvers valued co-investment across sectors driven by the realization that educational advancement can only happen if sectors work together. An investment in health, or security and nutrition, is also an investment in educational opportunity.
Last week, as part of the UNICEF South Asia Regional Meetings in Kolkata, India, I had the opportunity to meet individuals who were advancing initiatives pioneered by the fastest performers. I visited schools, early childhood centers, and community organizations and along the way met with young people, school leaders, government officials, and teachers throughout West Bengal. In some of these visits, I saw aspects of the Learning Generation recommendations in action. It was encouraging to see “blocks” (local government districts) doing what we expect of the best performers while others were working toward these levels.
A noticeable theme was co-investment across sectors. I first traveled to the Shishu Aloy early childhood development center. As is common practice at many centers, children were in group learning activities. And just outside on the patio, mothers were learning about nutrition and good health practices. We know that 90% of a child’s brain develops before the age of five – so the learning activities and stimulation were just one part of the equation. Good nutrition, quality care, and protection were also necessary. On the wall was a chart with the weight of each child in the class that showed whether they were within healthy weight bands or in a zone of malnutrition. This chart, brought into the classroom, embodied a small but vital step in uniting health and education objectives.
When I asked Rita, the local director of 70 early childhood centers in the district about the obstacles before her, she replied, “My biggest challenge is to make sure every early childhood center I oversee is improving and getting better. And I do it because it is important – I love what I do.” This heartfelt passion to constantly improve is a theme that I continued to see time and again.
Advancements extend beyond the intersection of education and health. My next stop was an adolescent social accountability initiative in Amgachia village. This group of young people had mapped their school community and identified education barriers. The map laid bare the challenges confronting these children. There were burnt out street lights making it dark and unsafe when they returned from school. There was a group of adolescent boys who teased the young people when they left school, a situation which could only be helped with more local patrolling. And the water was too far away from the school, which meant that many had to take time out of their day – or even worse, miss school to access this basic need. All of the signposts on the map indicated interrelated safety, security, and health concerns that can inhibit learning. But they didn’t stop there: they also embraced accountability. The young people presented the plan to the block leaders who, to date, have displayed a willingness to address their concerns. Patrol officers have been posted on the route; the water issue was being addressed, and replacement of the lights was underway.
My last stop was Noorpur Madrasah in Kalarchak. This was an impressive school with a strong school leader and community engagement. What I found most exciting was a group of 24 girls and one boy who were determined to improve attendance and learning. Each day, this group would monitor attendance with the school leaders and teachers. If a student was absent for more than three days, classmates would visit the household with a teacher to understand why they were not in school and encourage the parents to ensure their children do not miss out. They also kept an eye out for vulnerable girls at risk of early marriage. If they learned one of their peers was vulnerable, they would – in groups – visit the parents to try to convince them not to marry off the young girl and preserve her seat in the classroom. The student who had the best class scores was a young woman who remained in school thanks to peers who convinced her parents not to follow through with an early marriage. Instances such as this remind us that educating girls unlocks benefits for her family and reduces the under-five mortality rates of her children by nearly 25%.
India still has a long way to go. Estimates show that across the country, more than 2.5 million young people are still not in school and many more are not learning even the most basic skills. But if all education systems in India adopt some of the characteristics of co-investment and accountability that I saw in the few places I visited, the Learning Generation is within reach.