Quality must be focus of post-2015 development agenda

Measures to improve the quality of education and learning outcomes are set to become a focal point of the post-2015 development agenda, according to Education International, the world’s largest federation representing teacher trade unions.

Addressing delegates attending Education International’s “Unite for Quality Education” conference held from 27-30 May in Montreal, Canada, the federation’s General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen called for a new push for quality education through enhanced access, innovative resources, teacher education and supportive learning environments.

“One message that should go everywhere is that there is no substitute for high quality education,” Van Leeuwen told the conference, which was organised in collaboration with UNESCO, the Global Education First Initiative and the OECD, among others.

According to UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova there is a global learning crisis, with 250 million children not acquiring basic learning skills, even after many years in school. Outlining UNESCO’s position on the post-2015 education agenda, Bokova rooted for stronger collective action on education quality.

“Poor outcomes of education at all levels around the world have raised concerns for the need to shift the focus from access alone to access and quality,” Bokova told delegates.

Fixing quality

Background conference papers made available to University World News noted that there has been growing interest in how to fix education quality at all levels.

According to Education International’s key position paper, “Principles for a Post-2015 Education and Development Framework”, quality education is viewed in terms of providing adequate learning resources, engaging in professional processes and achieving satisfactory, immediate broad-based outcomes at all levels.

“Subsequently, quality education must result in positive longer-term outcomes for employment and decent work, citizenship and personal development,” says the paper.

Some delegates were concerned that in most countries the quality of education was being pushed aside in favour of balanced budgets and standardised testing. Other delegations were critical of privatisation of education in many countries.

Hidden privatisation

Quoting a background paper from Stephen Ball, a professor of sociology of education at the University of London’s Institute of Education, Van Leeuwen explained how hidden privatisation in public education was affecting quality by putting heavy emphasis on teaching to test strategies that encourage rote learning and repetition.

According to Ball, this type of hidden privatisation involves importing ideas from the private sector in order to make the education sector behave as a business venture. But it narrows and diminishes students’ classroom experiences as teachers concentrate on test practice sessions and coaching for examinations.

While it is argued that intense competition in schooling makes schools more responsive to their students, Education International noted that aggressive social marketing of schools increased expenditure with the costs passed on to students in the form of tuition fees.

“Consequently, competition for admission in schools with high-examination test scores is animated by high income groups.

“Within education markets, there is no simple relationship between parental choice and school quality and nor do schools compete for students on a level playing ground,” noted Susan Hopgood, president of Education International.

The impact of privatisation on quality was felt even more in higher education, with universities in many parts of the world increasingly recruiting students in order to maximise income.

To avoid the culture of self-interest in tertiary education, the conference recommended increased public funding for universities. Many delegates pointed out that the ability to pay for higher education had entrenched inequality and undermined the right to education.

More public support

To tackle unequal educational outcomes, delegates urged governments to consider allocating at least 6% of gross domestic product, and aid donors at least 10% of official development assistance to education.

In its report card assessing the achievement of the education Millennium Development Goals, Education International noted that countries had failed to increase education budgets – especially in higher education – and that the unpredictability of foreign aid hindered effective education sector planning.

According to the federation’s report Education in Crisis, widespread cuts in higher education spending in many countries had significantly lowered education quality. Also: “Access to research and elite universities has not been easy for the poor students and other marginalised groups.”

Delegates were worried that the original idea of public education as a social equaliser was being rapidly eroded and could only be restored through quality public education.

Global education market poses risks

“The emergence of a global market in education, which began in higher education but which is now encroaching on most educational sectors, poses a number of potential risks for the teaching and research mission of educational institutions globally,” said Van Leeuwen.

Towards defining the post-2015 education agenda, the conference warned that education quality would be further eroded unless universities trained more teachers.

According to UNESCO, about 1.6 million additional teachers are needed by 2015 to achieve universal primary education. Even more seriously, universities are currently not training enough maths and science teachers.

The prevailing scenario is that most universities, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, lack the capacity to train teachers – which prompted delegates to call for global action on training high quality teachers in all subjects.

During the conference, Education International confirmed that it would create a platform for member organisations and education partners to join forces to lobby G8 and G20 countries to initiate an education recovery plan, with investing in skills and quality education at its core.