Inclusion is key to building education ‘back better’ but policy gaps remain

By Susan Nicolai, Senior Research Fellow, ODI

Extensive calls to ‘build back better’ are being made in response to the continued impacts and restrictions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. For education, with close to half the world’s students still affected by partial or full school closures, these new challenges compound a long-standing global learning crisis where more than half of children and adolescents are unable to reach minimum proficiency levels in foundation subjects.  

Efforts such as #SaveOurFuture have been critical in collectively identifying actions to deliver change to the education sector in the wake of Covid-19. The campaign’s associated White Paper crucially sets out priorities including to ‘make education inclusive’ and to ‘target public spending at those left furthest behind’. Evidence of inequities in education systems was widespread even before the crisis caused by COVID-19, with learning opportunities unevenly distributed and quality education often unobtainable for the most marginalized children, adolescents, and young people. Moreover, many are especially at risk of education exclusion through compounded marginalisation due to intersecting inequalities.

Recent ODI research across a sub-set of 38 countries that have shown substantive gains on primary completion rates over the last two decades revealed several critical lessons in relation to education equity and past experience.

Firstly, a focus on marginalised groups, such as girls, contributes to faster overall education progress. In our multivariate analyses and through a series of robustness tests, we found that faster progress was achieved by countries that put in place laws targeting enrolment and completion for girls, and in countries that collected data on education for girls, with scholarships for girls attending primary education as particularly significant. There is potential that a greater level of focus on other excluded groups could similarly drive faster progress for education systems as a whole.

Secondly, governments operate on a hierarchy of priority in terms of excluded groups, with most groups receiving very limited policy attention. A higher level of education policy attention is generally given to children in rural and remote areas, disadvantaged linguistic groups, children with disabilities and special needs and girls. Much lower levels of policy attention were found in relation to indigenous and religious groups, children without registration, orphans and children connected to the street. Worryingly, government plans were largely silent on education for other groups, including children displaced by conflict, non-documented migrants, those living in informal settlements and enslaved children.

Thirdly, countries that increase government expenditure experience faster progress in primary completion. Countries in our sample of strong performers increased expenditure on primary education by 29%, significantly higher than the 10% among countries with slower progress. Both groups of countries equally increased expenditure on education as a proportion of total expenditure, demonstrating that the difference between both groups of countries is not related to increases in the share of the budget, but to the total amount oriented to education. Our regressions further showed the importance of making primary education free, which we know is critical from an equity perspective.

Finally, while we were able to see an association with increased foreign aid and debt relief, this did not necessarily seem to be a determinant factor in education progress. This is notable in that, while finance is key, our analysis clarifies the critical role of policy commitments and enacting a range of strategies such as teacher training in relation to driving changed in education. Aid has a role to play, but change is dependent on a range of other enabling factors that are critical to keep in mind in efforts to move toward more equitable education systems.

What educational inclusion means in practice is complex and there will never be one single formula for achieving greater equity. Once large-scale primary education progress has been made it is the most marginalised that continue to be excluded, with policy commitments to reach these groups too often falling far short of what is needed to maintain progress.

This week, the UK and Kenya co-host the Global Education Summit, seeking a US$5 billion replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) to take forward its multi-stakeholder efforts supporting education systems in up to 90 countries and territories. This level of investment begs the critical question of what ‘building back better’ looks like and to what extent a focus on inclusion receives attention in terms of what is most needed for investment.

Greater attention on the issue is needed, given that recent GEM Report findings showed only one in five countries have inclusive financing mechanisms in place. Earlier today in the side-lines of the GES the GEM Report and the World Bank co-hosted a special side-event on financing for disability inclusive education co-hosted with the International Disability and Development Consortium, International Disability Alliance, the Global Action on Disability Network, the Global Campaign for Education and with the support of the Global Partnership of Education. Ministers of Education from Sierra Leone, Ghana and Ethiopia joined young disability advocates from Nepal and Brazil to share insights and promising practices on how this can be improved. If you couldn’t make the event, watch the webinar.


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