The Learning Challenge
By Fenton Whelan
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Almost all of the world’s children are in school, but more than half are learning very little. For the first time in human history, we know what to do about it.

In school but not learning

In the modern world, a child’s chances in life depend not on whether they go to school, but on how much they learn. By this measure, despite great progress in expanding access to schooling, very few of the world’s children are getting the education they need to access the opportunities the 21st century offers.

For every hundred primary-age children in the world, 96 will attend some schooling. Ninety-one are in school now. However, just 37 will reach a basic level of learning in literacy and numeracy, equivalent to the 20th percentile in the developed world. Even fewer will reach a high level of learning.

This varies greatly around the world. In a few countries, more than 90% of children each at least a good basic level of learning. In 32 countries, less than 10% do.


What works in countries with the lowest learning levels

The best school systems spend hundreds of thousands of dollars educating each child, and use those funds to achieve high levels of learning. However, 50% of the world’s children live in countries where the total public funding available to fund their entire education is less than $3,000. Twenty-five percent live in countries where the total available is less than $2,000. Ensuring that every child learns will mean finding ways to provide a good education at these funding levels.

A few school systems are already able to achieve good results at these funding levels. BRAC in Bangladesh and Gyan Shala in India are two of the best, but there are others. They, and a range of other evidence, suggest that schools which are going to achieve good results at low cost need six features:

  • Excellent teaching materials, including books and teacher guides which are easy to use, provide lots of guidance for teachers, and have been rigorously tested and refined based on feedback from the field

  • Intense coaching and support to help every teacher teach well, typically including at least weekly mentoring and coaching in the field

  • More time on task through a longer school year, high student attendance, high teacher attendance, and a high level of activity during the school day

  • Mother-tongue instruction in the early grades to enable children to acquire numeracy and literacy quickly and give them a strong foundation for the acquisition of other languages

  • Good basic facilities to provide a simple but adequate learning environment

  • Strong accountability and management to ensure that schools stay focused and the system is constantly learning and finding ways to improve

None of these features are highly complicated. However, the challenge of quickly implementing them across school systems with millions and sometimes tens of millions of students is formidable. Fortunately, a science for how to do that is rapidly emerging.


Over the past 15 years, a set of techniques for successful implementation in government has begun to emerge, which Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, refers to as a “Science of Delivery.” If those techniques could be applied consistently across the world’s large school systems, it would dramatically change the world’s education landscape.

As a coherent theory of how to make change happen in government, Delivery first emerged in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in the United Kingdom, under the leadership of Michael Barber. Since then (and often under Sir Michael’s guidance), delivery has been applied in a wide range of countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Thailand, the United States and others. Since 2011, with Michael’s support, the Government of Punjab has applied the same techniques in Punjab, Pakistan, the largest test of the approach so far in the developing world.

From those experiences, a set of lessons about how to successfully reform large school systems is emerging. They suggest that five things will be essential to get every child in school and learning:

  • Political leadership is essential, but is as much the product of a successful delivery effort as an ingredient for it

  • Prioritization is the single most important factor determining the success of delivery. Reforms which exceed the system’s capacity to implement them are doomed

  • Data and other measures of progress are essential so that the system knows whether it is making progress, can understand what works, and can tackle underperformance

  • The speed and effectiveness of the delivery effort depends on the extent to which it can create and spread learning about what works. In most systems, the answers are already out there somewhere, the challenge is to find and spread them

  • In particular, routines and stocktakes are essential to drive progress and unblock problems as they emerge. A stocktake with the President or Prime Minister on every priority area once every three months can drive the system forward


The opportunity today

Ten years from now, two futures are possible. In one, the world’s largest school systems continue along incremental paths of improvement. The issues of implementation are not seriously confronted, the policy prescription is not adapted to the needs of the poorest countries and improvement happens slowly, if at all. In this future, hundreds of millions of children will never gain access to the education they need to seize the opportunities of the 21st century.

In the other, the world’s largest school systems embark today on ambitious reforms of their schools, based on the emerging knowledge of what works and how to implement at scale. They adapt, refine and build on that knowledge. They work within the real fiscal and other constraints to find the best possible solutions for their systems. And they create a world in which, ten years from now, the promise of education for all is truly becoming a reality.

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