Meeting targetsWhen results are not forthcoming, it is all too easy to look for someone to blame. This is true for education too. Today, there are 264 million children and youth not going to school.
When results are not forthcoming, it is all too easy to look for someone to blame. This is true for education too. Today, there are 264 million children and youth not going to school. Learning, even for those enrolled, is often poor. There should be no blame game, we need to tackle these failures together. Taking forward the global education goal in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development requires efforts by everyone, and accountability for all.
Clear lines of responsibility, knowing when and where those lines are broken and what action is required in response—this is the meaning of accountability, the focus of the 2017/8 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report just published by UNESCO. Governments, schools and teachers have a frontline role to play, hand-in-hand with students and parents.
Without accountability, we risk jeopardising progress towards the 2030 Agenda. For one, the absence of clearly-designed education plans and transparent budgets by governments can blur roles and mean that promises remain empty and policies not funded. When public systems do not provide an education of sufficient quality, and for-profit actors fill the gap but operate without regulations, the marginalised lose out. Governments are the primary duty bearers for the right to education, yet in almost half of countries it is not possible to take the government to court for violating this right, a primary course of action for those with a complaint.
Everyone has a role to play in improving education. This starts with citizens, supported by civil society organisations and research institutions, who point out gaps in quality, equitable education. Students taking to the streets in South Africa and Chile have successfully fought for affordability in higher education. Petitions by parents have resulted in changes in textbook content to reflect climate change in the United States. Volunteers in the Philippines have monitored textbook delivery points and reduced costs by two-thirds.
The media is another core partner, helping give a platform to advocacy efforts and campaigns by civil society organisations and researchers, holding governments and other education actors to account with the power of the word. International organisations have aso been in the lead in shaping new goals and targets in line with the complex challenges of our times.
The 2017/18 GEM Report shows also that not all accountability methods are currently helping us achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education. In some parts of the world, it is becoming more common, for instance, for teachers and schools to be sanctioned for poor test results, in the name of purported attempts to improve quality instruction and learning. The Report concludes this must be approached with great caution to avoid having unintended, contrary consequences. Poor learning, after all, is unlikely to be any one person’s fault.
There is extensive evidence showing that high-stakes tests based on narrow performance measures can encourage efforts to ‘game the system,’ negatively impacting on learning and disproportionately punishing the marginalised, who may be left out to improve overall scores and cannot afford private tutors to keep up. It is vital to collect data on learning outcomes, to shed light on factors that drive inequality in education. But drawing precise conclusions requires time, resources and skills that few countries have, and drawing the wrong conclusions can be all too easy.
Accountability means being able to act when something is going wrong, through independent audit institutions to scrutinise expenditure, strong parliamentary committees to monitor government, ombudspersons to protect citizens’ rights. We need stronger mechanisms across the board to enshrine and enforce the right to education and hold all Governments to account for their commitments, including donors. The right to education must become justiciable everywhere.
The word ‘accountability’ appears all throughout the 2030 Education Framework for Action, demonstrating the importance that UNESCO and the international community give to follow up and review functions to catalyse and monitor progress. This means also that all countries should produce national education monitoring reports explaining their progress against their commitments—currently only about half do so and most of them not regularly. Accountability is about interpreting evidence, identifying problems and working out how to solve them. This must be the backbone to all our efforts to achieve equitable, quality education for all.
Bokova is the Director-General of UNESCO