High quality education has incredible potential to improve lives and drive prosperity, but around the world access to it is highly unequal. This education inequity hurts social mobility, societal cohesion and economic growth. Whether at national or global scale, the effects are the same – and are devastating for individual children, communities and economies.
One in five children drop out of school before age 12 and more than a third of those who finish primary school – about 260 million children – are still unable to read or write. And while it is easy to imagine that the global learning crisis is a developing world problem, one in five fifteen-year-olds in OECD countries – some of the richest in the world – don’t reach minimum proficiency in reading, maths or science.
Our new report, Tech-Inclusive Education: A World-Class System for Every Child, highlights the competing policy pressures at the heart of the global education crisis: a trilemma of cost, scale and quality. As things stand, the design of school systems is not equal to resolving this tension and a new approach is required across all three.
Why We Need to Look At Scale Differently
The expansion of access to education over the past few decades must count among humanity’s greatest achievements, but the job is nowhere near done – and we have a mountain left to climb. In 2015, the nations of the world came together and committed to ensure that, by 2030, every child in the world will be on track to completing both primary and secondary school. Our analysis shows that this will require creating places for 272 million more children a year than were in school in 2015 – and that on current trends, we will fall more than a hundred million short.
Why We Need to Look At Costs Differently
Funding seems like the simplest policy lever to pull to improve education – spend more and you will get better results. But while sufficient funding is necessary, it is also not sufficient. OECD research has previously shown diminishing marginal returns to spending above $50,000 in cumulative spending per student. Our analysis in the report replicates these findings for 140 countries, identifying a ‘sweet spot’ of $5-7,000 per year per student. Past this point gains to performance drop rapidly. Even so, two thirds of countries are spending less than this – some ten times less.
Why We Need to Look At Quality Differently
Quality in education is not simply about helping children acquire literacy and numeracy skills appropriate to their level of education, though that, too, is important. Education should help them acquire the social and emotional skills that are important in determining future life outcomes. It should prepare them to participate in society and the economy as fully as their compatriots. This last part is crucial: a quality education system is one that ensures equity regardless of gender, socioeconomic, religious or ethnic background, or disability. On these criteria, as the damning statistics above show, most education systems are failing in both the global north and the global south.
Why Tech-Inclusive Education Is the Way Forward
The world’s failure to reconcile scale, cost and quality in education means new models are urgently needed. We need to stop seeing technology as something external to the process of learning. Tech’s potential to unlock the benefits of a world-class education for all children means we should recognise that tech-inclusive education isn’t a luxury, it is the right of every child. Imagine an education system where:
Pupils have a single ID that connects their learning journey and offers seamless access to relevant public services such as libraries or transport discounts. The feedback from their teachers, records of their achievements in and out of the classroom and evidence of their mastery of various skills can be tracked over time and the most relevant ones shared, with the student’s express consent, with universities or prospective employers.
Instead of cramming students into 30-person classes, schools organise teaching across cohorts. Divided up by year group or by stage, children engage in a wide range of learning activities with high-quality digital content adapted to their strengths and weaknesses, with close in-person support – including regular small group tuition – from larger teams of teachers. These teams have a mix of more experienced educators and trainees, with responsibilities matched to skills and experience, and teachers have a clear sense of career progression towards more and more challenging roles with pay scales that match other knowledge-economy jobs.
Physical proximity to a school is no longer the main determinant of access to quality education, with a new regulatory regime for online schools. Supported by a network of local ‘remote learning hubs’, providing connected facilities, quiet study spaces and extracurricular activities, students in left-behind areas have the option of studying at some of the best schools anywhere in the country without missing out on the social benefits of in-person attendance. And parents do not need to play Teaching Assistant to a home school on Zoom.
Such education futures are possible at national scale with the right attitude to technology, but there are a number of steps governments and international organisations need to take in order for this to become a reality:
In the short term (one to two years), international organisations such as UNESCO should address existing gaps in access to education by funding and building a remote World Education Service, free at the point of delivery and accessible to all through the internet as well as low-tech channels like feature phones.
In the medium term (three to seven years), national governments should build capacity for the effective use of technology through strategic investment in “minimum viable education systems”, with a holistic approach to the elements of school systems that affect the rate of adoption and the impact of education technology.
In the long term (five to ten years), national governments should pilot and scale up radical reforms – such as the ones outlined above – that maximise the potential of technology to deliver quality education at scale and sustainable cost.
The ultimate goal should be for every child in every country, not just the lucky few, to benefit from the best that a world-class education has to offer. Tech-inclusive education should let us accelerate progress towards this goal and we must set our ambitions high.