When the Prime Minister of a country decides to open an education conference to tackle the learning crisis for South Asia – home to almost 2 billion people – it speaks volumes about the high priority the sector is receiving to support the democratization and development of the region. The message was clear when Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli said, “We need to be bold and ambitious to embrace the learning needs of 40 percent of Nepal’s population below the age of 16 years – this is the wisest of investments. Let us not forget our pathways to solutions that honour heritage, resilience and innovations of our region.” This was a great preface and connector to the core messages of The Learning Generation: Investing in education for a changing world, an action plan for the largest expansion of educational opportunity in history. The Learning Generation report (2016) sets out a bold agenda to get all young people into school and learning within a generation through a focus on four transformations: 1) investing for performance, 2) innovation, 3) inclusion, and 4) more and better financing. Two weeks ago, UNICEF and the Education Commission co-hosted the Learning Generation conference in Kathmandu to introduce countries to the delivery approach and tools to accelerate education reform and results.

Prime Minister of Nepal Khadga Prasad Oli opening conference in Kathmandu with Regional Director for UNICEF South Asia Jean Gough. Photo: UNICEF

Prime Minister of Nepal Khadga Prasad Oli opening conference in Kathmandu with Regional Director for UNICEF South Asia Jean Gough. Photo: UNICEF

This three-day high-level conference brought together over 80 participants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and included Ministers and Secretaries of Education from both the national and state level.

Partnerships lie at the heart of any actionable agenda for human development. This conference, with its powerful mix of relevant leaders from government (education, finance, planning, and development), civil society, researchers, and development partners, focused on how to accelerate progress in education and achieve SDG4, giving priority to those children most at risk of being excluded from learning. I was proud to wear multiple hats at this gathering, simultaneously representing the Education Commission as a Commissioner, Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) as CEO, and the People’s Action for Learning Network (PAL-Network) as an active member.

Regional Director for UNICEF South Asia Jean Gough appropriately framed the challenge: “While impressive strides have been made in achieving universal primary education, we have a learning crisis in South Asia with only about half of the primary-aged children receiving education with minimum learning standards. We need much greater investment and increased quality education for girls and boys alike if we hope to see the next generation reach their full potential.”

The UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Education Commission Chair Gordon Brown and UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore both sent messages to the conference to champion and mobilize many more in South Asia to #MakeImpossiblePossible and get all young people in school and learning within a generation.

Participants at the Nepal Learning Generation Workshop. Photo: UNICEF

Participants at the Nepal Learning Generation Workshop. Photo: UNICEF

The conference created a platform for participants to share proven approaches for scaling up and improving education performance in the region, in particular with the “delivery approach.” The delivery approach aims to turn national plans and reforms into tangible education results by tackling service delivery challenges. This methodology is designed to achieve better and faster implementation, and requires critical ingredients such as committed political champions, a laser focus on a small number of defined priorities, rigorous performance monitoring, the use of data to keep delivery on track and resolve problems as they arise, and a team to drive accountability at all levels of the system. The workshop allowed participants to learn about the approach together and apply principles to real-life examples. For me, the biggest result was country demand to adapt the approach in specific ways to their context, from testing it at district level to applying it to enhance delivery of sector reforms.

The Maldives shared its commitment to ‘early years’; Bhutan emphasized inclusion to ensure no child is left behind; and other countries highlighted initiatives on equity and gender challenges to end child marriages, improve efficiency of resources, good governance, workforce diversification, ICTs and 21st century skills – issues all well aligned with the Learning Generation’s four transformations.

Active participation from UNICEF-ROSA, the Asian Development Bank, UK’s Department for International Development, the Global Partnership for Education, and UNESCO kept high  energy flowing with particular attention paid to unique contexts, and the complexity and granularity of data for unique solutions. It was reassuring and thought-provoking to learn from each country’s initiatives and challenges.

I could not help but take great pride in two case studies shared at the conference. First, the selection of Punjab, Pakistan as a success story in adopting the delivery approach with impressive metrics of transformation. Taimur Jhagra, who spent seven years with the Punjab program, presented the case study powerfully and shared core practices of the approach along with a senior colleague from Punjab’s School Education Department (SED), Mr. Mustaque Sial. The remarkable improvements in education outcomes, much of this achieved in the last three years, speak for themselves. In Punjab province, an additional three million children are in school attending 95 percent of the time; teachers are attending 95.5 percent of the time; 99 percent of schools have basic infrastructure, including water and power; and most impressively, average learning outcomes in Urdu, English, and maths have increased from 55 to 77 percent.

Second, a repeated reference to ASER Pakistan’s citizen-led assessments as a benchmarking tool for learning and missing facilities as well as the main influence for the tech-enabled assessment Learning and Numeracy Drive (LND) for measuring competencies of Grade 3 students by the Government of Punjab at scale (1.5 million students) was another source of pride. The recently produced ASER report cards on education performance of political parties mapped to their manifestos were also used during exercises for the Pakistan team, another powerful data-driven initiative of Idara-e-Taleem-o-aagahi (ITA). These are indeed profound testimonials of a journey validated at national, regional, and global levels.

As a Commissioner, I felt tremendous satisfaction at the high quality of engagement of participants, their appetite for reform and innovation, and prospects for concrete action once they returned home. This could not have been possible without the leadership and convening power of the Education Commission and UNICEF South Asia. With the successful launch in New York of the campaign for the International Finance Facility for Education (IFFEd) in the same week as our workshop halfway around the world in Nepal, global momentum is building to create additional financing opportunities that could drive real education results in our region, and #MakeImpossiblePossible.

Baela Raza Jamil
CEO, Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) and Commissioner, the International Commission on Financing Education Opportunity