Access to education is one of the surest ways we have to end extreme poverty in the world. It has the power to raise incomes, unleash human potential and make broad contributions to development, from advances in health and science to agricultural innovation, industrial development and private-sector growth.
In recent years, developing countries have made dramatic progress getting more children into school. However, the full promise of education remains unfulfilled, because going to school does not always result in actual learning. Across the developing world, an estimated 250 million children cannot read or write, even though many have been to school.
At the World Bank Group, we are committed to ending extreme poverty by 2030 and to achieving shared prosperity for the poorest 40% of people living in developing countries. Delivering real learning for all children and youth is absolutely integral to our mission.
Furthermore, the Sustainable Development Goals recently adopted at the United Nations now represent an ambitious agenda for the world. Stronger and more equitable education systems that really ensure learning will need to be a critical element of any national strategy to reach these goals.
The specific goal on education (SDG 4) calls for inclusive and equitable quality education and life-long learning opportunities for all. We believe that countries can achieve this by investing early to ensure that children are prepared to learn by the time they enter primary school, investing smartly to ensure better results, and investing in such a way that the benefits reach all children and youth, especially those from poor and marginalised groups.
Why invest early? Increasingly, policymakers are paying more attention to early childhood development programmes – which cut across the health, education and social protection sectors – not only because these programmes help children benefit more from their primary school experience, but also because they influence their future earnings as adults.
In one groundbreaking study, Nobel-winning economist James Heckman, Paul Gertler and others showed that Jamaican children from poor and disadvantaged families who took part in an early childhood development programme earned 25% higher wages as adults. These striking results were produced by interventions as simple as teaching mothers how to play with and talk to their toddlers at home. These findings have profound significance as countries look for ways to ensure that economic growth is inclusive and that the rising tide lifts all boats.
Moreover, we know that when children under the age of five lack access to early childhood development programmes there are long-term, often irreversible effects on educational attainment, health, fertility and productivity. The cost of this neglect, both to them and to society, is also significant. In financial terms alone, increasing preschool enrolment to even 50% for children in developing countries could result in lifetime earnings gains of $15-$34 billion.
More support for results-based financing
Countries need to invest smartly in education to make systems stronger for the long term. One set of innovative financing solutions, together known as results-based financing, makes financing contingent on the achievement of pre-agreed results. The World Bank Group announced in May 2015 that it will double its support for results-based financing in education to $5 billion over the next five years. This approach is already widely used in the health sector.
Since then, two large results-based financing loans have been approved by our board: one to enhance the effectiveness of elementary school teachers in Bihar, India, and another to support another Indian state, Madhya Pradesh, in its higher education reforms. Policymakers are increasingly using this approach in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, India, Jamaica, Pakistan and Tanzania. In Pakistan’s Sindh province, for example, about 17,000 teachers have been recruited through a transparent merit- and need-based system, using results-based financing.
As incentives within education systems are better aligned with desired outcomes – usually a chain of targets that lead to greater learning – the focus shifts beyond inputs such as buildings and blackboards and towards results and impact. Rigorous evaluation of reform measures provides evidence that can be used to further strengthen systems, creating a virtuous ‘systems-results-evidence’ cycle that will attract more resources towards education, ensuring that countries can find the financing that will be needed to reach their overarching education goals.
While tackling the massive learning crisis in schools is a difficult but not impossible challenge, countries also need to close the remaining access gap. According to UNESCO, an estimated 124 million children and adolescents remain out of school at the primary and lower secondary levels.
These are also the hardest to reach: girls; children who live in extreme poverty, in slums and remote areas, and in fragile and conflict-affected environments; children from ethnic minorities and lower castes; and those who have disabilities. These are the very children for whom quality education could represent a sure way out of poverty and deprivation.
G20 leaders can help neglected and under-served children and youth by recognising and supporting the case for making smart and sustainable investments in quality education, including in middle-income countries, to break the cycle of poverty and achieve inclusive growth. Girls will need particularly strong support to transition to secondary school. This calls for championship at the highest level to ensure a coordinated effort across transport, school infrastructure and staffing, and social safety nets that reach disadvantaged families.
Every child deserves the right to reach his or her full potential and take advantage of the many economic opportunities that may come along in an increasingly connected world. We need to do more, as a global community, to keep the faith with parents and children, and to ensure that being in school delivers the learning results and the eventual life benefits that they expect from education. As the African proverb goes, it takes a village to raise a child.