Towards progressive universalism: getting all children in school and learning

06 June 2017


Professor Pauline Rose from the University of Cambridge.
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Professor Pauline Rose from the University of Cambridge.
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Professor Pauline Rose from the University of Cambridge at IIEP-UNESCO.

There is a growing body of evidence that the world cannot ignore. The most disadvantaged children – especially girls in rural poverty and those with disabilities – are not accessing education or learning at the same rate as their wealthier peers.
“It’s the poorest almost every time who are doing the worst. Less than one in four of the poor are learning the basics,” said Professor Pauline Rose from the University of Cambridge, where she also is the director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre.


During the last IIEP Strategic Debate on 18 May, Rose made an impassioned case for why action must be taken, and the data not ignored.

“If we continue business as usual we’re going to have a big problem,” she said, highlighting the vast gap in learning outcomes between the world’s richest and poorest students.

“If we are going to achieve this goal [SDG 4] by 2030, it is clear that we need the progress of the poorest to be accelerated, even faster than the richest. But we know historically that the pattern is often the other way around,” she said.

Watch the video of the full debate:

Such is the case in Liberia, where less than ten dollars is spent on a poor child compared to 100 dollars on a rich child. While Liberia is the most extreme case, a majority of countries similarly invest more heavily on the more advantaged students.


Prioritizing the vulnerable

For all young people to have a quality education by 2030, Rose calls for a progressive universalism that prioritizes disadvantaged children – such as the poor, disabled and rural poor girls – early on, while maintaining a commitment to all children.

“We need to be realistic about the pot of money we have and work out how to best use what is there,” said Rose.

The Education Commission’s Learning Generation report – which Rose’s research from the REAL Centre helped inform  – also promotes this idea of tipping available resources in favour of the most vulnerable.

The report urges leaders worldwide to target efforts and resources at those at risk of not learning.  However, time and again, we see the poor not being prioritized, but missing out.

“Government spending in most countries strongly favours the richest and most educated, and is usually skewed toward higher levels of education,” the report says. “On average in low-income countries, 46 percent of public education resources are allocated to educate the 10 percent most educated students.”

Reaching students before it’s too late

Vulnerable children must be reached early. For what happens in the first years of school has a profound impact on academic success in the later years, including whether or not a student advances to higher education.

Using data from rural India, Rose showed how poorer students trail behind their wealthier peers who have mastered the basics.

However, when poorer students have similar school opportunities to their wealthier peers they are more likely to keep up.

For example, the learning achievement gap between rich and poor students in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda dropped from between 20 to 25 percentage points to around ten when they shared the same school. When students shared the same classroom, the gap fell a further five points.

“When poor children are in the same school, same resources with the same teachers with the same infrastructure as wealthier peers, they have almost the same chances of learning,” said Rose, “and that is a really important message.”   


Leaving no one behind 

The transition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the SDGs saw a shift from focusing solely on access to education to the quality of education. Yet, Rose cautioned against prematurely ringing the bell of victory.

Take Pakistan, where the education crisis often hits international news. Amongst the poorest rural girls, 40 percent are out of school. For those that are in school, only half are learning the basics, such as how to perform a simple subtraction, said Rose.

While Pakistan is an especially worrying case, it clearly shows that the quest to achieve access to education for all is far from won. Conversations around access must also be better defined – it’s not just a question of girls’ education, but what kind of girl is missing out.

Fortunately, there is a growing set of data and data collection methods that can reveal who exactly is being left behind, including groups – notably disabled students – that had long been invisible to both national policy debates and in turn, educational opportunities.

“It is possible to identify children with disabilities. It’s no longer an excuse to say we can’t do it,” said Rose, illustrating how groups such as The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) in Pakistan now include identifiers on disability in their data sets.

The findings can be quite revealing. For example, more than often parents of children with disabilities do want them to enroll in school, contrary to popular belief. However, once in school, disabled students often face an environment not conducive to learning and supportive of their needs, said Rose.


Putting the data to use    

Overall, Rose made clear that there is a bevy of valuable data today on both who is in school, and who is learning. There is more nuance than ever before – for example, it’s not just a matter of looking at rich and poor students, but also along gender lines, location or those with disability. This data must be put to use to inform policy at local, national and global levels. Progress must also be tracked from the early years, said Rose, and disadvantage tackled – via better use of resources and informed policymaking – before it’s too late. All together, this can lay the foundation for future educational success, not only for the individual student but for generations to come.

View Pauline Rose’s full presentation here.


See more: 
Five steps to achieving the goal of educating every child in the world, by Pauline Rose. The Guardian.