How governments and national policies are shaping education

Education provides both individuals and society as a whole with a wide range of benefits. Besides driving greater productivity and economic growth, access to high quality education also enhances the standard of living and leads to better health outcomes and more peaceful and resilient societies. Studies have shown that people with higher levels of education have better chances of finding employment and will earn more over the course of their working life.

Unfortunately, the world is currently in the midst of a major learning crisis, with more than 263 million children and youth worldwide out of school. Furthermore, out of those who are in school, a staggering 387 million fail to reach minimum proficiency levels in reading and maths. The reasons for this are manifold, ranging from the lack of books and other learning materials to the shortage of qualified teachers and instructors. Another concerning fact is that 21 per cent of young people today are neither employed nor in education or training programmes, preventing them from reaching their full potential.

Governments can play a major part in addressing these issues and ensuring that every child receives the education they need to become productive members of society. According to the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, it will take $3 trillion in annual education spending to close the learning gap in low- and middle-income countries, 97 per cent of which will have to come from governments. It’s important to point out that investments in education will deliver positive public returns in the long run. Better educated people will earn more money, pay higher taxes, and reduce the social entitlements and welfare costs for the governments. If everyone had equal access to education, we would be able to create a more equitable society and significantly increase civic engagement levels, which would in turn allow us to build safer neighbourhoods.

Resistance to change

Although it’s quite clear that major changes are necessary if we are to achieve our goal of equal access to education for everyone, governments are often reluctant to do what needs to be done. For instance, back in 2020, the government in England announced a very ambitious education reform, in which most BTECs (vocational qualifications taken after GCSEs, which are taken at the age of 15 or 16 to mark a student’s completion of secondary education) would be replaced with new technical qualifications called the T-levels. According to the government, the existing qualifications system was very confusing for students due to a large degree of overlap between different qualifications at the same level. What’s even worse, many of those courses failed to prepare students adequately for skilled work and address the existing skills gap.

However, after some criticism from education leaders, the government decided to postpone its planned reform by another year. “We know that we would be wrong to push too hard and risk compromising quality. That is why I am announcing… that we have decided to allow an extra year before our reform timetable is implemented,” says Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, adding that the extra year would enable the government to “continue to work hard to support the growth of T-levels and give more notice to providers, awarding organisations, employers, students and parents so that they can prepare for the changes.”

While change is necessary, it needs to be carefully thought through, because if not implemented properly, it can cause more harm than good. A case in point is England, where the government’s education funding reforms led to the most deprived schools in the country receiving less money, while those better-off got more. “The national funding formula replaced a system which was unfair, untransparent and out of date where similar schools and local areas received very different levels of funding, with little or no justification. The funding system now ensures resources are delivered where they are needed the most,” said a spokesperson for the Department for Education at the time. 

However, a report published by the Commons public accounts committee (PAC) revealed that the new funding formula actually resulted in a 1.2 per cent decrease in per-pupil funding for the most deprived schools, while per-pupil funding for the least deprived increased by 2.9 per cent. Furthermore, changes to pupil premium funding for the most disadvantaged resulted in a further £90m loss of funding for schools. That is why the PAC is calling on the government to pause its funding reforms and assess how further changes might affect individual schools before going through with them.

“Schools are facing a perfect storm of challenges with promises of teacher pay rises, per-pupil funding changes and falling rolls but no clear plan from the Department for Education,” says the PAC chair, Dame Meg Hillier. “Schools and pupils in deprived areas are being hit hardest by the funding formula at a time when the government’s commitment is to level up. Add to this the ongoing delays in the review of support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities and some of the most vulnerable children are facing an uncertain future – on top of the impact of COVID.” Of course, England is not the only country in the world to experience struggles such as these, with many others going through similar issues in recent years.

How government investment can help build a stronger school system

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has had a dramatic impact on just about every sector, but education has been hit harder than most. Already stretched thin even before there was a global health crisis, the new economic shocks brought about by the pandemic and the growing pressure on public finances had further negative effects on not only the funding but also the delivery of education globally. Unsurprisingly, the poorest countries of the world were the ones that were hit the hardest by these developments, which could end up exacerbating the existing disparities in access to quality education even further.

To make matters worse, the global pandemic recovery efforts have largely ignored the education sector. Out of $12 trillion in stimulus packages allocated so far, less than one per cent went to education and training. However, many believe that this is a mistake and that education should be at the heart of our recovery efforts, as it has the potential to help us address a wide range of challenges we are facing, including the economic, health, environmental, and social crises.

In the US, president Biden asked Congress to increase funding for the Title I grant programme, which provides financial support to school districts with high numbers of low-income students, from $16.5 billion in 2021 to $36.5 billion. “This investment would provide historically under-resourced schools with the funding needed to deliver a high-quality education to all of their students,” writes Biden in his discretionary funding request for 2022.

Over in the UK, The Department for Education recently announced plans to transform the country’s school system into a new model built around strong multi-academy trusts, which have demonstrated a wide range of benefits during the pandemic, most notably in their collaborative approach and the ability to combine their knowledge and resources. From now on, all schools will be able to experience the benefits of multi-academy trusts by associating with one for a defined period of time, with no strings attached.

“I am determined to finish what we started and end the pick-and-mix approach to school types, building back fairer from the pandemic to make sure every parent has the certainty that their child is at a school that is backed by a strong trust,” said former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. “This is one of the most important things I can do to make sure every child has the opportunity to catch up on any education, development or emotional support they may have missed during the pandemic.”

To encourage more schools to convert into academies, the government also announced plans to launch an expanded £24 million fund, as well as updated guidance for trusts and prospective academy converters. This will be accompanied by an updated trust and school improvement offer to help underperforming schools improve their Ofsted rating. According to Williamson, the government will also launch a new National Behaviour Survey, which will give parents valuable insights into the state of behaviour in schools, including disrupting behaviour and bullying.

“A group of schools working together in a single entity can do lots of things that are harder for stand-alone schools to do. Teachers work and learn together to improve the way they teach and schools can share practices that make a difference to the quality of teaching,” adds Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts. “In the collaborative structure of a School Trust, it is more possible for teachers and leaders to move to another school to help improve the quality of education where that school is struggling – and these moves are more likely to be to schools with more disadvantaged pupils.”

New initiatives transforming education systems worldwide

New bill offers students in California learning recovery options

The transition to distance learning brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has been extremely challenging for students around the world, resulting in lower grades for many of them. According to the California Department of Education, the number of students who didn’t even enrol in school in this US state during the pandemic exceeded 160,000. To make matters worse, the Public Policy Institute of California reveals that 16 per cent of school-aged children in the state lacked internet access at home, while another 27 per cent didn’t have a high-speed internet connection. As a result, a large number of students fell behind their peers during this period.

To address this issue and help students get back on track, assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez introduced a bill named Assembly Bill 104. “As a mom of three boys who were in ‘Zoom school’ during the pandemic, I saw how much our kids struggled to adapt to distance learning,” said Gonzalez. “Knowing that hundreds of thousands of students across California weren’t able to log on at all during the past school year, it was clear we needed special interventions to help students overcome these unexpected setbacks.” The new bill allows students who fell behind in the 2020-2021 school year to choose from several learning recovery options, including repeating their grade level, choosing a pass or no pass grading system, and adding an additional fifth year.

According to the new bill, if a student is not passing at least half of their courses, their parents can request from the school that they retake their grade level. The school has 30 days to organise a consultation involving the student, their parents, and their teacher to discuss the matter. If it is ultimately determined that it’s in the student’s best interest to retake the grade level, the school is also required to offer them supplemental learning and socio-emotional support. Furthermore, to ensure that their grade point average (GPA) is not negatively affected by lower grades, which could in turn affect their college admissions or restrict access to state financial aid, students can choose to have the letter grades on their transcript changed to “Pass” or “No Pass”, with higher education institutions within the state required to accept such transcripts. Finally, students enrolled in their third or fourth year of secondary education are given an opportunity to add an additional year of instruction to complete their graduation requirements.

Indonesia rolls out several initiatives to improve teaching quality

The Indonesian government recently announced plans to roll out several initiatives designed to improve teaching quality in the country’s schools. “All of our teachers across Indonesia work because of their calling, not for money or just looking for a stable job, but they work to serve. We will launch several programmes for teachers next year,” said Nadiem Anwar Makarim, the Minister of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology. Within the scope of these initiatives, teachers across the country will be provided with communication information technology assistance, including laptops and projectors. They will also get access to free online training, as well as various technology platforms that should help enhance their teaching and learning activities. Furthermore, the ministry will also provide a more relevant and practical curriculum that will facilitate independent instruction and enable teachers to make the learning process easier and more enjoyable for students.

Makarim also highlighted collaboration with the Australian government and the World Bank within the Improving Dimensions of Teaching, Education Management, and Learning Environment (ID-TEMAN) programme, which aims to improve Indonesia’s education system through improved policy, operations, and implementation. The minister brought special attention to recent developments in artificial intelligence and called for a wider adoption of the technology within the education sector, where it could be used to help teachers streamline their administrative duties and provide students with a more personalised learning experience. “The development of science and the global situation will accelerate the application of AI in various fields and will have a massive impact on the world of work in the future. This will be unavoidable, and we cannot stop it”, he added.

How Benin transformed its secondary education

Benin, a small country located on the west coast of Africa, has been plagued with an extremely high dropout rate for quite some time. Out of 5 million school-aged children in the country, only 60 per cent enrol in middle school. What’s even more alarming is that only one third of them actually go on to finish it, with the lack of qualified teachers and poor infrastructure cited as the most common reasons why. To address this issue, Benin’s government launched the Benin Secondary Education Support Project (PAESB) in collaboration with the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), the main goal of which is to strengthen the school infrastructure across the country.

The programme selected four administrative departments to have new classrooms constructed and outfitted. Overall, 62 four-classroom units and 112 latrine units have been built in 45 secondary schools since the programme was first launched three years ago. Furthermore, according to Wilfrid Djènontin, the project’s coordinator, PAESB also initiated the decentralisation of the supervisory and educational coordination system, recruiting 108 educational inspectors and providing them with all-terrain vehicles, as well as reprographic equipment like photocopiers, printers, and accessories. Finally, to address the issue of high failure rates in science examinations, PAESB trained nearly 3,500 teachers in the scope of the new “Science plan”.

“Our school has gained two new four-classroom units. This has increased the number of students we can teach at one time, and reduced the problem of rotating classes, which was causing us a lot of trouble. For example, some students who live dozens of kilometres away from the school suffered from relatively late school-leaving times and schedules subject to abrupt changes,” explains Patient Gnitona, the principal of Boukoumbé Middle School. “This was reason enough for a number of students to give up coming to classes. We also obtained the construction of two latrines units with an access ramp adapted for people with reduced mobility.”

Australia turns attention to school infrastructure

Another country focusing its efforts on improving school infrastructure is Australia, where the government recently announced plans to fund major infrastructure upgrades in a range of schools across metropolitan and regional South Australia. The upgrades in question will differ from one school to another, depending on their needs. Some will receive new buildings or additional facilities and learning areas, while others will have their existing learning areas refurbished or old, relocatable buildings removed. Last but not least, there will also be some landscaping and security upgrades. The plan is to complete all of the upgrades before the 2022 school year starts. The government will also allocate $28.6 million in funding to schools that require additional accommodation, while those that are already receiving upgrades to increase their capacity will have additional funding of $28 million at their disposal.

What governments around the world are doing to support their teachers

A number of other countries the world over have turned to technology to provide support to their teachers and students throughout the pandemic. Many teachers were forced to modify their practices in order to maintain their students’ engagement levels as they transitioned to remote learning. Counting on high mobile phone penetration in the country, Cambodia’s education leaders implemented a new strategy that involves SMS, printed handouts, and continuous teacher feedback. In addition to providing access to learning programs and paper-based learning materials on a weekly basis, the new approach also requires teachers to hold weekly meetings with their students, where they would mark their worksheets and deliver new ones for the upcoming week, thus keeping an eye on their progress. With radio as the primary remote learning channel, the government in Sierra Leone decided to open a live, toll-free phone line that would enable students to call their teachers and ask them questions. They also adjusted the schedule of radio lessons to free up more time for students to take care of their daily chores.

Some governments have also modified their existing professional development programmes to be delivered remotely during the pandemic. In Nigeria, for instance, the Edo-BEST in-service teacher training program, which helps teachers learn how to use digital technologies in the classroom, switched from in-person to remote training, while Uruguay’s Institute for in-Service Teacher Training did the same with its existing coaching programme to provide teachers with remote pedagogical support. In Estonia, on the other hand, the Information Technology Foundation for Education (HITSA) opened an educational technology information line to enable teachers to get answers to their technological questions. The country also gave teachers the freedom to adjust their curriculum and lesson plans as they see fit.

Realising that teachers themselves may also have difficulties adjusting to remote learning, the state of São Paulo in Brazil developed a mobile application that allowed teachers to communicate with Secretary Rossieli Soares on a regular basis and explain their concerns. Meanwhile, in Minas Gerais, another Brazilian state, the government developed a mobile application called Conexao Escola, which enables students and teachers to communicate with each other at a designated time after class. In Peru, the Ministry of Education took steps to reduce teachers’ administrative workload by promptly changing its guidelines, while the Costa Rican government developed a digital toolbox with pedagogical resources for teachers.

Future outlook

Traditionally, educational reform has been a top-down process in which governments play a leading role. While a top-down reform is probably still the best way to modernise a national education system, the problem with this approach is that even when it’s well designed and implemented, it’s a slow and inflexible process, which relies heavily on political capital and commitment. Thankfully, there is another way to go about it.

In recent years, companies and NGOs around the world have launched a number of successful grassroots initiatives designed to improve educational outcomes. Many of these initiatives managed to surpass traditional educational systems when it came to offering targeted support in specific areas, such as languages, digital skills, or critical thinking. For example, a billionaire real-estate developer in Slovakia founded a boarding school called LEAF Academy, while the car manufacturer Škoda opened its own university in the Czech Republic. Hungary also has a successful grassroot initiative in the form of Invendor Innovation Academy, a unique training and mentorship programme.

The world is undergoing a major digital transformation, which has been accelerated even further by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. To ensure that students acquire the skills they need to succeed in this increasingly digital world, our educational systems need to undergo a reform of their own. Governments can play a key role in this process by allocating adequate funding, passing new laws, and launching initiatives that will enhance the learning environment and provide both students and teachers with the support they need to deliver better outcomes.