Four Education Transformations

Making the Learning Generation a reality will require more financial resources, measures to ensure that these resources are used efficiently to deliver the best returns, and reforms that support students to learn and gain the skills they need to become productive and successful adults.

To achieve the Learning Generation vision, the Commission has identified four education transformations national and international decision-makers needs to undertake:

  • Performance –To succeed, the first priority for any reform effort is to put in place the proven building blocks of delivery, strengthen the performance of the education system, and put results first.
  • Innovation – Successful education systems must develop new and creative approaches to achieving results in order to meet the education challenges ahead.
  • Inclusion – Successful education systems must reach everyone, including the most disadvantaged and marginalized. While the first two transformations will help create more effective learning systems, they will not close the learning gap unless leaders also take additional steps to include and support those at greatest risk of not learning – the poor, the discriminated against, girls, and those facing multiple disadvantages.
  • Finance – Successful education systems will require more and better investment. This investment must be based upon the primary responsibility of national governments to ensure that every child has access to free quality education from preprimary to secondary levels. It must be supported by the resources and leadership of international partners, prioritizing their investment in countries that demonstrate a commitment to invest and reform.

Each of these four transformations is supported by a set of recommendations. Taken together, they are intended to be a holistic approach to extending access to education and improving learning, rather than a list of discrete actions to select from.


Reform education systems to deliver results
Leaders must strengthen the performance of education systems by designing in a focus on results at every level, learning from the best results-driven systems in education and across sectors.

Today, in too many parts of the world, more money is not leading to better outcomes. Efforts to improve education are leading to huge variability in results, with similar investments and reforms producing widely different outcomes in different places. For example, Vietnam spends about the same amount per pupil on education as Tunisia, as a percentage of GDP per capita. Yet, in Tunisia only 64 percent of students passed the secondary international learning assessment, while in Vietnam it was 96 percent. The Commission’s analysis finds that improvements in the design and delivery of education will succeed only if they are underpinned by a system that is built to deliver results. Strong results-driven education systems— which ensure coherence across policies, a clear route from policy to implementation, and effective governance and accountability— are necessary for strong outcomes and lasting change.


Recommendation 1: Set standards, track progress and make information public

As a first step toward creating results-driven education systems, the Commission recommends that national decision-makers set national standards, assess learning and monitor progress. Today, the majority of children in the developing world are not tested at all. Only about half of developing countries have a systematic national learning assessment at primary school level; far fewer do at lower secondary level. Only half of countries report data on government expenditure on education.

Assessing learning enables teachers to tailor teaching and helps leaders to target efforts and resources where they are most needed. Publishing information about outcomes and expenditure helps to strengthen accountability and improve efficiency and results.  Countries should develop their own national assessments as part of a sustainable infrastructure of data collection and analysis. As part of this, countries should track expenditure from system to school level and publish National Education Accounts to facilitate improvements in efficiency. Data should be made public to enable communities and families to help drive results by holding leaders and schools to account.

To galvanize attention globally, a single global indicator of learning should be agreed on to complement national measures of learning. The international community should track, rank, and publicize countries’ progress in getting all children learning. And to provide the technical, financial and capacity-building support necessary for all of this, global partners should establish a Global Education Data Initiative. The initiative would support developing countries in conducting their own national assessments to an appropriate standard, build analytical capacity for disseminating and using results, and support participation in international and regional assessments.


Recommendation 2: Invest in what delivers the best results

The Commission recommends that decision-makers invest in the education interventions and approaches that deliver the best results. Funding should be shifted to the best-proven systemic changes and specific practices that improve learning, selected and adapted according to different country contexts. What works best in improving learning is better understood than ever. Unfortunately, too little of this knowledge makes it into education policy. Some of the most proven approaches remain overlooked and underfunded, while money continues to be spent on other, much less effective, practices and interventions (see Figure 4). For example, while evidence on the benefits of mother-tongue instruction is strong, only half of all children in low- and middle-income countries are taught in a language they speak.

Figure 4. Proven practices can transform learning at low cost

proven practices yield high ROI

Source: Education Commission analysis (2016)

To keep investment focused on the reforms and practices that work best requires building education systems that continuously seek out and act upon the best new information on what delivers results, including by increasing the share of funding that goes toward research, development and evaluation. Increasing funding in education R&D and evaluation can benefit all countries and will be particularly critical as decision-makers innovate and respond to the new challenges and opportunities facing education in the coming decades.


Recommendation 3: Cut waste

Improving performance also requires cutting waste and cracking down on the inefficiency and corruption that inhibit students from learning. Low- and middle-income countries on average spend 2 percent of their GDP each year on education costs that do not lead to learning. Spending that does not lead to real learning or progression through education, poorly targeted resources, and weak financial management are the biggest sources of waste in education systems across the world.

Increased investment and improved efficiency cannot substitute for one another. Both will be needed. Indeed, increased spending will often be required in order to achieve increased efficiency. More resources are urgently needed, but if all resources were better managed, teaching and learning could improve sharply and returns on investment in education would become even stronger.

In many countries, corruption in education is pervasive, not only leaking money from the system but also damaging children’s learning and teachers’ motivation. Public expenditure tracking surveys have found that up to a quarter – and in extreme cases up to a half – of funds earmarked for public schools do not end up reaching them. Decision-makers should take action to fight corruption in education by establishing reliable education management information systems, enabling teachers to spend their time teaching, tackling the systemic causes of absenteeism, and cutting the costs of learning materials.


Invest in new approaches and adapt to future needs
Leaders must foster innovation across education systems by creating an environment in which new ideas and approaches can emerge and scale, and by prioritizing innovation in three key areas: the education workforce, the use of technology, and the role of non-state partners.

Just improving the performance of current education systems is not enough. Far-reaching innovation is needed to equip young people with the knowledge and skills they need for the new economy, to provide education to millions more children effectively and efficiently, and to take advantage of new technology and new understanding of how children learn.

Recommendation 4: Strengthen and diversify the education workforce

Innovation in strengthening and expanding a diverse education workforce is critical to improving education, especially given that demand for teachers in developing countries will grow dramatically in the years ahead. In low-income countries, demand is set to nearly double by 2030.

This presents a huge challenge in terms of training and recruiting enough teachers, but it is also an opportunity to take a new look at the education workforce and how teachers teach. This will require the systematic professionalization of both teaching and non-teaching roles within education, by improving teacher training and support for teachers, alongside distinct training and support for non-teaching roles. Teachers must be paid a livable wage that properly reflects the importance of the profession and makes it an attractive career option.

Decision-makers also need to diversify the composition of the education workforce to leverage teachers, reduce the time teachers spend on nonteaching and administrative activities, and improve and personalize learning. Here, the education sector can learn from innovations in the public health sector, where there is generally a far more diversified workforce in place to meet increasing demands and costs. Specifically, many health systems have successfully utilized nursing assistants and medical scribes to replace doctors’ time for filling out medical records, as well as nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform basic diagnostic measurements (see Figure 5).  Similarly, education systems should consider bringing in pedagogic assistants, health practitioners, psychologists, and administrative support to take on the nonteaching work that teachers often have to do, allowing them to harness their teaching skills to the fullest.

Figure 5. Education workforce is much less diversified than the health workforce – case of Chile

support staff for medical doctors versus teachers

Source: OECD-TALIS data (2013); WHO data (2015). Note: estimate for health support staff is conservative. It does not include pharmaceutical assistants, lab assistants, or environmental workers. Teaching support staff includes teaching aides and all support professionals who provide instruction or support teachers in providing instruction, including education media specialists, psychologists, and nurses. Both estimates exclude management, administrative, and building maintenance personnel.

The Commission recommends establishing a yearlong taskforce to bring together teachers, policymakers, and researchers to develop specific proposals for the redesign of professional roles within the education sector and for addressing their recruitment, training, deployment and development needs.


Recommendation 5: Harnessing technology for teaching and learning

Employing innovations in technology to improve teaching and learning offers huge opportunities to transform education at all levels. By 2020, virtually everyone will have a mobile phone, 2.6 billion people will have smart phones, and 56 percent of people will have Internet access. Digital learning makes it possible to reach new and excluded learners, lower costs, enhance teaching, and offer new ways for all learners to gain skills. It could be particularly key for post-secondary education where increasing access, affordability, and relevance of learning will become ever more critical. However, uneven access to the Internet and digital technologies risks exacerbating existing inequalities in learning. Today, in the poorest countries only one out of every 10 people is online. Across many developing countries, less than 10 percent of schools are connected to the Internet.

To fully harness technology’s power, the Commission recommends cross-sector investment to get every school online and establish the broader digital infrastructure necessary for learning. Investments in digital infrastructure must be supported by measures to provide skills and best practice to teachers, policymakers, employers, and leaders on how to maximize the impact of digital innovation on teaching and learning. To facilitate the expansion of high-quality digital learning, governments should establish common learning platforms and introduce pro-innovation regulation. In addition, to encourage innovations in delivery, it will become increasingly important to innovate in the recognition and accreditation of skills in order to allow students learning in different ways to gain equally valuable qualifications.


Recommendation 6: Improve partnerships with non-state actors

Innovation in education can also benefit greatly from better collaboration and partnership between governments and non-state actors. While governments have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring all children have access to a quality education and for providing the necessary public finance, there is great potential for a diverse set of organizations from every sector to help expand and improve education if partnered and regulated effectively by governments.

Civil society organizations, businesses, and employers of all sectors play important, and, in many countries, expanding roles in education – in leadership, advocacy, and accountability, as well as in being education providers and investors. Whether non-state actors increase capacity and innovation or instead entrench inequalities will depend on how their role is managed and regulated.

The Commission recommends governments strengthen their capacity to harness the potential of all partners. In particular, this should include improving the regulation of non-state providers of education in order to protect rights, and expanding the role of employers in the design and delivery of education.


Target efforts and resources at those at risk of not learning
Leaders should prioritize inclusion by expanding provision of education in a progressive way and mobilizing every sector to address the multitude of factors that determine whether a child starts school, stays in school, and learns in school.

Poverty is a major cause of children not entering or completing school, and of not learning once in school. In developing countries, the gap in primary school completion rates between the richest and poorest children is more than 30 percentage points. For those in school, the average gap between the chances of the richest and poorest children achieving primary school level skills is 20 percentage points.

Economic inequality is often compounded by other disadvantages when it comes to access to quality education and learning. A child’s gender, family, ethnic, cultural, and economic background, geography, health or disability, and exposure to poverty or disorder, conflict or disaster all play a major role in whether a child will learn and succeed.  In rural India, for example, there is a 20 percentage-point gap in rates of learning between poorer and wealthier children.  Add the impact of gender, mother’s education, and regional disparities, and the gap rises to 80 percentage points.


Recommendation 7: Pursue progressive universalism

The Commission recommends applying the concept of progressive universalism as a way to close this learning gap. Progressive universalism means expanding provision of quality education for everyone while prioritizing the needs of the poor and disadvantaged. It provides a guiding principle to inform spending decisions, recognizing the scarcity of public funding. The Commission recommends that, when balancing spending across different levels of education and population groups, decision-makers should prioritize the poor and early years where social returns are highest, and minimize household spending on basic education by the poor (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Progressive universalism in education – a stylized example

progressive universalism

Source: Education Commission (2016)

Unfortunately, education spending in most countries today strongly favors the richest and most educated, and is usually skewed toward higher levels of education. On average in low-income countries, around 46 percent of public education resources is allocated to educate the top 10-percent most educated students. And despite high public returns on preprimary education, it accounts for just 0.3 percent of education spending across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Governments should develop financing formulas that factor in the higher investment needed to reach those children who are disadvantaged due to poverty, disability, or other factors. They should also support the complementary role for private financing and cost recovery for higher levels of education where appropriate, recognizing the high private returns.


Recommendation 8: Invest across sectors to tackle the factors preventing learning

Improving and investing in education systems alone will not be enough to get all children into school and learning. Leaders must also invest in other areas to tackle the non-education factors preventing children from learning. For many of the children and young people who are not in school or not learning today, the causes of their educational exclusion or disadvantage lie far beyond the education system. For example, in low-income countries, up to 500 million schooldays are lost each year due to ill health , often from preventable conditions, while one in three girls in the developing world marries before the age of 18, usually leaving education when they do.

The Commission recommends that governments undertake and encourage joint planning, investment, and implementation across sectors to tackle the most prevalent learning barriers. Efforts often require community action and advocacy, critical to challenging norms and supporting local change. Innovation and technology can be vital for inclusion, helping children find new ways to learn and participate. National legislation and international action can be key to underpinning and embedding these inclusion efforts. For example, joint action and investment on education and health is especially important. The Commission proposes that decision-makers in a set of pioneer countries invest in joint education-health initiatives that would develop and implement complementary interventions that benefit both sectors. The Commission also recommends focusing investments in early childhood development and in services for adolescent girls, which can deliver particularly strong complementary health and education benefits.



Increase and improve financing for education
Getting all children learning will require mobilizing more money for education and ensuring all money is spent better. Implementing reforms in performance, innovation, and inclusion will not only improve the impact of investment in education, but will also be critical for mobilizing more resources for education. No country that has committed itself to investing and reforming its education system should be prevented from achieving its objectives because of a lack of resources.

The Commission’s vision for the Learning Generation will require total spending on education to rise steadily from $1.2 trillion per year today to $3 trillion by 2030 across all low- and middle-income countries. Recommendations for how this increased spending can be achieved are informed by analysis of the levels of domestic resource mobilization achievable by different countries and by the most current needs and opportunities for reshaping the international financing of education.

A large majority of this money must come from domestic governments given their primary responsibility for ensuring universal primary and secondary education. Much of the necessary increase will come from the fiscal dividend available to national governments from economic growth but increases are also needed in the share of public expenditures allocated to education. This will not be enough, though, particularly in the case of low-income countries where substantial international support (up to 50 percent of total costs) will be needed. International finance should be available for all countries that need it, but should be prioritized according to where needs are greatest and where commitment to reform is demonstrated, with extra support for fragile states. The Commission’s costing and spending estimates project increased efficiency in the use of resources, in line with this report’s recommendations (Figure 7).


Figure 7: Costing and financing pathway for the Learning Generation

Costing and financing pathway for the Learning Generation

Source: Education Commission analysis (2016).

To achieve this investment plan for the Learning Generation, the Commission recommends increasing and improving domestic and international financing for education.


Recommendation 9: Mobilize more domestic resources for education

Domestic public spending is by far the most important source of finance for education and will continue to be the driving force in expanding access to quality education.

The Commission’s investment plan calls for low- and middle-income countries to increase domestic public expenditures on education from an estimated $1 trillion in 2015 to $2.7 trillion by 2030, or from 4 to 5.8 percent of GDP, requiring an annual rate of growth in public education spending of 7 percent. Governments should devote more of the proceeds of growth to education through reallocating spending, raising more revenues, or both. International Monetary Fund estimates show that almost all developing countries have the potential to increase their tax and other revenues substantially, by an average of 9 percentage points in low-income countries. The Commission’s investment plan calls on countries that are below the average predicted resource mobilization for their income level to rise to that level, and countries that are above that level to maintain it. In addition, governments should consider reallocating resources from, for example, expensive energy subsidies and consider earmarking resources for education, alongside wider tax reforms. Although domestic public spending on education has risen at an annual rate of just under 6 percent per year since 2000, on average education’s share of total public expenditures has declined across all income groups. This needs to be reversed.

Significantly increasing domestic financing will be essential and achievable for countries committed to reforming education. But in order to fully realize the Learning Generation vision, international financing will continue to play a key role and must be increased and scaled.


International Financing for the Learning Generation