Essay 10

The Ground Beneath our Feet

Hugh McLean

selective photography of green leaf plant


The only people who see the whole picture,’ he murmured, ‘are the ones who step out of the frame.’”
Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Girindre Beeharry’s eloquent article in the International Journal of Education Development1 and his FreshEd podcast2 with Will Brehm, provide ardent reflections on the crucial importance of foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN). He offers a reasoned and compelling challenge for the “global education architecture” to prioritize these outcomes more urgently, particularly in lower-income countries (LICS) and especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

I agree that education systems should provide minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics by the end of primary school as SDG indicator 4.1.1(b) states.3 Education systems significantly compromise the right to education if they cannot deliver this. But I do not agree that foundational learning means only literacy and numeracy; nor that prioritizing, in any sense of “narrowing the entire SDG 4 agenda to part of one indicator for one part of SDG 4.1,”4 is the best way to improve foundational learning or, for that matter, outcomes in literacy and numeracy. As the saying goes, it takes a whole village to raise child: it will take the whole of SDG 4 to raise foundational learning.

To support my argument and offer a wider reflection on foundational learning and on the global education governance mechanisms that support its delivery, I adapt Catherine Emmott’s idea of contextual frames in narrative text.5 In fiction, a contextual frame is the mental conception readers form in reading a text or watching a movie; it involves time, story line, place, and characters. Switches to the contextual frame—such as flashbacks, the story from the viewpoint of another character, a story within a story, another story line—add bits of information we need to appreciate and understand the overall narrative.

Girin’s contextual frame for his narrative on prioritising FLN reveals a global education community that comprises diverse actors: donor countries, international institutions, civil society organizations and structures, and national government partners. In a form of a collective échec scolaire, these actors have been unable to end illiteracy and innumeracy in the three decades since the 1990 Jomtien Declaration of Education for All. Their task, in this historic moment, is to prioritize FNL clearly among the more-expansive set of commitments that comprise SDG 4, rigorously monitor performance towards achieving FLN by the end of primary school, and shoulder accountability for doing so, particularly with regard to LICS and especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

This essay explores four frame switches to this narrative, each positioned from a different perspective. The first frame switch locates prioritising FLN historically within the 200-year period that early and late modern states took to achieve literate populations and build mass education systems. The second positions prioritising FLN inter-generationally to consider adult literacy and learning as outlined in SDG 4.6. The third frame switch places prioritising FLN within the reality of a normal school day and asks what it means for how schools think and what they do. The fourth relocates prioritising FLN within the evolving topography of global education governance,6 effecting an exploration of the geopolitics of where agendas are set and how decisions are made.

The loss of inheritance: A short and incomplete history of tall achievements

“The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind.”
Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss

The past may also change the present; looking forward again, we may not find what we thought was here. In narrative theory, analepsis is when a past event is narrated at a point later than its chronological place in the story. This frame switch locates prioritising FLN within a lay history of mass literacy campaigns in the 200 years prior to Jomtien; it becomes a story about the development of the modern nation state and the end of colonial rule in the embers of the Second World War.

The history of mass literacy in Europe from the early 1800s7 suggests a mutual dependency with the development of the modern state. Mass literacy took at least a century to achieve in Western countries; it made huge demands on resources with spending on education, at times, second only to spending on the military. It required huge effort to convince people of its benefits and the growth of the “reading public” tended to precede, rather than follow, the history of formal schooling.8 The relationship between literacy and economic growth was complex; there appears to be no single narrative of literacy and economic development across Europe.

Twentieth century campaigns achieved mass literacy in far shorter periods—most began as integral parts of revolutionary movements9 and were then continued by states that described themselves as socialist: China, Cuba, Russia, Tanzania, and Vietnam.10 South Korea and Taiwan are exceptions although the long march to literacy in neighbouring China had a necessitating effect.

China’s struggle to achieve mass literacy11 took 70 years: it involved a series of intense campaigns over a huge geography and more than a billion people. Its early animators included populist educators like James Yen and Dewey student Tao Xingzhi—a young Mao Zedong taught in their campaigns. The literacy rate in Imperial China at the times of the reforms of 1905 and the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 was probably 10-15 percent. The communist movement inspired a vast range of informal village-level literacy and basic education initiatives, which the state took forward after the revolution in 1949. The 1982 census, China’s first since 1954, put the literate population at 65.5 percent. Spurred on by Chairman Deng’s economic reforms, literacy rates grew from 65.5 percent in 1982 to 96.8 percent in 2018, an average annual rate of 10.52 percent—roughly on par with China’s economic growth over the same period.

Cuba’s national literacy campaign of 1961—Yo si Puedo (Yes I Can)—was a huge success. In 1961, the Year of Education, 200,000 youthful brigades taught over 700,000 adults to read and write, taking the literacy rate to 96 percent. Pre-revolutionary Cuba had relatively high literacy rates and Castro’s mass literacy campaign began long prior to 1959 by when it was already 77 percent, the fourth highest literacy rate in Latin America.12 Castro’s rebel army built local literacy boards and schools as it gained territory from 1953. This established an infrastructure on which the 1961 literacy campaign and subsequent education reforms could depend. Despite el bloqueo, the ongoing US embargoes and sanctions from 1958, which the UN estimates has cost Cuba $130 billion over six decades,13 literacy in Cuba has remained close to 100 percent for 60 years.14

The Soviet literacy campaign took 22 years, from 1917 to 1939, to accomplish what took Britain, France, and Germany over 100 years.15 Literacy was around 40 percent in 1917 but this masks huge differences between males and females and between rural and urban areas. Lenin and the Bolsheviks regarded literacy to be crucial to the success of the revolution. Investments in education were significantly increased and the whole system was radically overhauled. In the early years before the Stalinist bureaucracy took hold, there was space for innovative ideas and efforts were made to harness democratic energy from below.16 The Soviet government established the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Liquidation of Illiteracy (Cheka Likbez) in 1920; 87 percent of the population was literate by 1939 and 99 percent by 1959.17

Tanzania’s national literacy campaign grew out of Nyerere’s vision for Ujamaa—African socialism and self-reliance. The national literacy campaign that began with the year of Adult Education in 1971 claimed to have doubled the adult literacy rate from 31 percent in 1969 to 61 percent four years, leading to demands for more schools.18 Tanzania’s national literacy efforts subsequently stagnated. Critics attribute this to be the ruling party’s efforts to consolidate power and enhance productivity, giving in to the demands of structural adjustment rather than building on the enthusiasm for democratic participation from below. Nevertheless, the country’s literacy rate inched up to 77 percent by 2015.

The struggles against illiteracy in South Korea and Vietnam offer an interesting comparison. Japan occupied both as well as their neighbour, China, during the Second World War. Thus, both were former colonies torn apart and devastated by Cold War conflicts after the Second World War. Korea lost over 3 million people, a staggering 15 percent of its population; Vietnam lost one-and-a-half million people.

Korea’s literacy rate was 33 percent in 1930. The Japanese occupation had done little to advance the Korean language or literacy and this statistic was practically unchanged 15 years later. After the Korean War in 1954, the five-year National Illiteracy Eradication Campaign took literacy to about 70 percent. This increased to 85 percent by 1968, and to over 90 percent in time UNESCO’s International Literacy Year in 1990.

Soon after the Vietnamese Communists succeeded in seizing power in the 1945 August Revolution, Hồ Chí Minh declared independence from France. He launched the bình dân học vụ(BDHV), or Popular Education movement, to eradicate illiteracy as 95 percent of Vietnamese people could not read or write. Within a year, 95,000 teachers had helped more than 2.5 million people become literate. These efforts persisted through the anti-colonial war against France from 1946, by the end of which 10,000,000 Vietnamese were literate.19 Vietnam divided into north and south at the end of the colonial war, in 1954, but a civil war continued until the Vietcong victory in 1975. By 1979, 84 percent of the population of the country was literate; this figure reached 95 percent by 2018, a mirror image of the 1945 illiteracy rate.20 

These histories show that, while there may be little correlation between a democratic state and a literate one, mass literacy was always a democratic project—an idea that enjoyed popular conviction and prevailed against great odds. Álvaro Linera, vice president of Bolivia from 2006 to 2019, makes a pertinent point: the task of a revolutionary movement is not merely to seize state power; it is to maintain vigilance to ensure that a fully participatory democracy is able to flourish.21

Looking forward again to the present, a time when most populations have relatively high literacy rates: the question for me is can we position FLN as a demand that finds democratic momentum? The fact that it needs to be dressed up as a crisis and flogged by global education institutions, national governments, and private foundations suggests that we shall not be able to. On the other hand, however, there are strong demands for the right to a quality education: people will always fight for an idea that furthers their livelihoods and their hopes. The challenge for global education leadership is to match these ambitions, not frustrate them; this will spur the democratic momentum we need to achieve FLN by the end of primary school.

A way of being free: reading the word and the world 22

“One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, we are also living the stories we planted—knowingly or unknowingly—in ourselves.”

― Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free

The available statistics on adult literacy (people from 15 years of age) suggest we are living in an age when mass literacy is doing relatively well. The earliest statistic for a global adult literacy rate is from before the Second World War from a study by the US Bureau of Education, which put it at 38 percent. In mid-last-century, just after the war, UNESCO’s first director-general estimated that about half the world’s population was literate.23 Recent World Bank data indicate that the global adult literacy rate has increased steadily every year from 67 percent in 1976 to 86 percent in 2018.24 The global literacy rate for youth (15-24 year-olds) was 91 percent in 2018, an increase from 83 percent two decades before.25 Women’s literacy consistently lags behind men’s literacy, comprising up-to-two thirds of each of these figures. Taken at face value, it would appear that achieving SDG 4.6 by 2030—to ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy—except for women’s literacy, is on track.26

The indicator for SDG 4.6 will monitor the “proportion of a population in a given age group achieving, at least, a fixed level of proficiency in functional literacy and numeracy skills.” This presents a significant methodological challenge partly because reliable, comparable data is extremely hard to come by, and partly because common standards for functional literacy and numeracy are not yet validated.27 Consequently, what these global data actually reflect is unclear, they mask considerable variation and are likely to include high proportions of readers whose proficiencies are very low.

UNESCO’s new definition of literacy is the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute; using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” It recognizes that “literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”28

This is a welcome development because it takes the notion of functional literacy two steps forward. First, by inviting a multiliteracies approach that recognises linguistic diversities and different literacies, such as information and digital literacy, and embracing various modes of communication, including online and visual.29 Second, in emphasizing how literacy develops human potential and enables participation in community and wider society, it invokes the participative and transformative aspirations and the humanist perspectives of “critical literacy” developed by Paulo Freire and others.30

The SDGs include lifelong learning within a global policy framework for the first time—although, despite stating it in the goal statement, none of the targets for SDG 4 mentions adult education. The OECD’s 1996 policy framework noted lifelong learning “requires good foundation skills among both youth and adults: particularly those with poor initial education.”31

SDG 4.6 targets all youth, the age group from 15-24. An International Labour Organization (ILO) 2020 report on global employment trends for youth provides the following breakdown. The global population for this age group includes 20 percent (267 million) not in education, employment, or training; over two-thirds of whom are young women. Of employed young people, 30 percent live in extreme or moderate poverty, despite earning a wage. Over three-quarters are in informal work; 46 percent are own-account workers or contributing family workers.32

These are shocking figures.

Opportunities for continuing education beyond primary school incentivise commitments to achieving a solid grounding in FLN.33 The World Bank recognizes the importance of strengthening whole education systems so that improvements in FLN might be sustained and scaled-up to support further education outcomes.34

This frame switch positions prioritising FLN inter-generationally. It reveals the literacies of youth and adults are interlinked parts of the same metanarrative: to engage the contemporary world in ways that are functionally competent, critically perceptive, and democratically assertive, requires multiliteracies. Higher functionality in all literacies significantly depends on the hope of a real chance to continue education beyond primary school.35

What is it about? As if a school has to be about only one thing

“Why did people ask "What is it about?" as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”

― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

Imagine a regular school day in a regular primary school in a LIC, perhaps in sub-Saharan Africa. The school is fully on board with the mission to prioritize foundational literacy and numeracy and accomplish it thoroughly; let us assume national standards are available and they have strong buy-in from teachers. What happens; what will the school do differently than what it does now; and how should the education department support this?

Here are eight things the education department and the school might consider.

1. Cut unnecessary paperwork for teachers

The administrative workload of teachers, including “number crunching” (recording, analysing, and monitoring data), has been cause for concern for a long time: it takes more time than lesson preparation and is one of the major cause of teachers leaving the profession.36 One of the most useful things that schools and education departments can do to support the focus on FLN is to streamline administrative and data management tasks. Schools could use teachers’ time more efficiently, enabling them to devote more time to teaching-related work, professional development, and learning.37

2. Establish teacher-led communities of practice and support professional development

Established good practice on teacher professional development emphasises the importance of having the opportunity to share experiences with colleagues. Schools and education departments could promote teacher-led communities of practice as a regular part of teacher professional development and supporting new teachers in the profession. Teacher-led communities of practice will certainly support the development of better methodologies for numeracy and literacy. Their discussion is never going to be limited to these two competencies only and is certain to focus more broadly on foundational learning and quality education.38

3. Ensure school inspections are supportive of the work of teachers and schools

It is unlikely that many schools or teachers find visits by school inspectors to be helpful for their work. If the role of school inspectors focuses more on support than sanction, this would assist foundational learning as well as subject-specific knowledge. Jika iMfundo, a South African collaborative project run by teachers’ unions, the education department, and business, promotes an approach to school inspections that centres on the question: “How can I help you?” Data emerging from this multi-year project in several thousand schools indicates a “deepening shift” towards practices that support collegiality and generate professional learning.39

4. Promote foundational literacy and numeracy across the curriculum

Literacy is not the language teacher’s job, numeracy is not the maths teacher’s job. Foundational literacy and numeracy are not separate areas of learning; they simply require methodological approaches that teachers can build into all subjects. In this respect, developing FLN and improving the quality of education are mutually supportive objectives. There is plenty of established evidence to show that numeracy and mathematics, and language and literacy, need to be reinforced across the curriculum.40

5. Recognise play and extracurricular activities as crucial for FLN and education quality

The value of play and other extracurricular activities are as indispensible for effective foundational learning as they are for improving overall education quality. This is not only particularly true for younger children; it remains valid throughout education. Varied activities in school are not only necessary for recreational reasons; they are crucial for developing relationships and communication skills that provide vital scaffolding for learning. These activities will greatly support learning when they are an intentional part of the school programme.41

6. Invest in school libraries

The growing school library literature provides ample evidence that school libraries have a significant effect on student achievement. They are particularly important for children from lower-income status homes. School libraries provide an important link between schooling and lifelong learning through public libraries. In smaller or poorer communities where at-home resources may be limited, school libraries can encourage multiliteracies though providing a wider range of resources that children may not otherwise have access to: including books, multimedia, and internet. Spending money on increased national testing rather than better-equipped libraries is a political choice, not an education choice.42

7. Reach out to parents, families, and communities

Parents are children’s first and most enduring educators. This is particularly true for at-home parenting in the early years but continues to be important throughout schooling. Parents who are unable to spend as much time as they would like to in supporting their children’s FLN needs and those who are less confident about their own reading, need help. Effective school-community relationships can maximise improvements in foundational learning. Interventions could include encouraging parents to join public libraries, providing joint reading programs for parents and children, and finding ways to enlist the help older siblings who are able to read.43

8. Support transitions into, as well as out of, primary school

“School readiness” with respect to the transition into primary school is a contested idea. The debate revolves around what readiness entails and whether it means getting children ready for school or getting schools ready for children. Readiness cannot be a benchmark event that children either pass or fail, it is a process that involves developing a range of mutually reinforcing capabilities. Of these, social and emotional skills are probably key: these involve the ability to take instruction, get along with others, solve problems, and think independently and critically. It is not helpful to reduce foundational learning to numeracy and literacy, the two things that happen to be the easiest skills to measure. Similarly, transitions from primary to secondary education do not involve only reading and writing. Human transitions throughout life, not just those from primary to secondary school, are about relationships, communication, self- confidence, and curiosity—schools need a well-rounded programme to develop these well.44 Primary schools need a broader working concept of foundational learning.

This frame switch to Girin’s narrative places prioritising FLN in the reality of a normal day in a regular primary school, revealing the supposed choice between a narrow or shallow approach to be a false one. It demonstrates why prioritisation cannot mean narrowing the education experience so that children learn to read, write, count, and add without doing anything else all day, every day.45 When we locate literacy and numeracy within the reality of the school, the discussion is broader and about foundational learning rather than a two-dimensional one about FLN: this is both necessary and entirely feasible. Getting serious about foundational learning provides a catalyst for improving education quality across a range of dimensions; these, in turn, provide incentive and opportunity for improving foundational learning. To achieve minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics by the end of primary school, we need to go deep and broad at the same time.

You can’t forbid them to learn: The politics of education aid

“You can’t forbid them to learn; knowledge belongs to all men.”

― Karamakate: The Embrace of the Serpent

I was fortunate to go to a lunch with H. S. Bhola when he visited South Africa in the early 1990s. He made a remark that has always stuck with me; I trust it remains relatively unembellished in my memory. When asked about education in China, he admired its increasing reach and organisation but wondered “if a system that did not allow plenty of room for endless pointless confusion could ever be trusted.”46 It was a throwaway remark, which I understood not as a preference for confusion but as an expression of his commitment to critical enquiry in the Freirean sense. At the risk of seeming overly Gramscian, I have similar concerns about the notion of an international architecture for education that can be broken, or more to the point, fixed.

This frame switch relocates the narrative on prioritising FLN at the level of global education governance, revisiting assumptions of what this entails and who it involves. Girin refers to “the global education architecture” and to “a global education community.” Towards the end of his essay we get to see exactly who he regards them to be as he politely gives each of them homework. They include policymakers in LICS (i.e., national governments), the Global Partnership for Education, UNESCO, the World Bank, bilateral donors, CSOs, and NGOs.47 Girin thus addresses a primarily policy and finance decision-making but also decision-influencing global education community.

For the bulk of his essay, however, Girin draws on Nicholas Burnett’s grumpy account of a broken international education architecture.48 For Burnett, this includes “the set of international agencies and institutions, official and unofficial, public and private that receive international resources to support countries’ educational development.” In a lengthy footnote, Burnett tweaks this definition to include “bodies that set and follow international policy for education,” (my emphasis) he then adds teachers and teachers’ unions, private schools, and others in a long, what he calls a “non-exhaustive” list, which seems to imply almost everyone except, curiously, national governments.

The problem with calling the global governance actors in education a “community” is that this implies trust and accessibility among members; calling it an “architecture” implies design and structure. It has none of these attributes. I have other difficulties with most notions of global governance. Typically, they do not offer conceptual clarity on who is included and who is not; they lump together very different actors ignoring their unequal policy and financial power; and they do not distinguish organisations that focus on global governance from those that engage global governance but have primary affiliations to national or to civil society constituencies. For global governance to be both effective and credible it must have adequate mechanisms for accountability but it also needs to accommodate advocacy. All this should be better resolved if we are going to admonish global governance for failing, or call on it to act.

In The Embrace of the Serpent, Karamakate, the last of his Amazonian tribe—played by director, Antonio Bolívar Salvador, himself among the last of the Colombian Amazon Ocaina—tells the American explorer: “I wasn’t meant to teach my people. I was meant to teach you.” It is a line to remind global actors, at a time when modern technologies, industries, trade and waste are destroying the planet, that we need to listen more to the people we intend to teach.

The emergence of the “new public management” consensus

“Work it harder, make it better.

Do it faster, makes us stronger.”

– Daft Punk: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

The three leadership functions Girin draws from Burnett—prioritisation linked to specific outcomes, measurement, and accountability—are central ideas in the new public management (NPM)49 consensus that has emerged as the new orthodoxy in global governance over the past 30 years. NPM emerged in Anglo-Saxon countries in the late 1970s and early 1980s: its narratives promote managerialism; performance and outcomes measurement; as well as the growth of markets, commercialisation, and competition in public services.50

The NPM consensus in education is rather specifically concerned with quality in education; not quality in a general sense, which is too broad a notion to manage effectively, but quality in a more limited, precise sense—the specific measurement of only selected elements of quality. The progressive education movement, at least since Dewey, who associated quality in education with quality in life,51 has always championed a more expansive idea of education quality. Education quality was a central concern for the Jomtien conference on Education for All in 1990. Quality is central to the Dakar Framework for Action and it comprised one of the six EFA goals. Quality and literacy are fundamental to the right to education for the self-evident reason that there is no point to having a right to education if it is not going to teach you to read.

The dictum attributed to Drucker,52 “what gets measured gets managed,”53 has been a central dogma of the new orthodoxy since business management ideas started being applied in public policy management from the 1960s. International and comparative education studies provide a hotbed for measurement. IEA—the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement—the organisation that started the first ILSAs—International Large Scale Assessments—was the key institution undertaking comparative tests of learning across countries between 1958 and the late 1980s. The Conference of Education Ministers of Francophone Countries (CONFEMEN) created PASEC54—the Programme for the Analysis of Education Systems—in 1991. The Latin-American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education created Laboratorio55 in 1994. Fifteen ministries of education came together to form SACMEQ —the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality—in 1995.

The OECD launched its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 1997; the first study was in 2000, and it now covers over 80 countries. UNESCO established the UIS, its Institute of Statistics, in 1999 to deliver accurate, policy-relevant comparative education statistics. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focused on two of the EFA goals—universal primary education (UPE) and gender parity—these goals were also relatively easier to measure.56 World Bank economists proposed a Millennium Learning Goal (MLG) in 2007 as a critique of MDG 2A (which focused on access to UPE).57 This presented an alternative methodology for measuring a “plausible minimal competency level”: like PISA, it focused on mathematics, reading, and science for 15-year olds.

The Common Core provides a perfect case study of the NPM consensus in the United States. It gained traction from the narrative that students were not learning what they ought to; prescribed standards for English and maths at every grade level; emphasized measurable outcomes and benchmarking for accountability and monitoring progress. This sounds familiar. Since its launch in 2010, the Gates Foundation has spent about $400 million on the Common Core; the 46 states that adopted it have spent several trillion dollars more. Ten years on, there is still insufficient evidence to show that it has improved student achievement, and by 2021, 16 of the states that adopted the Common Core have begun or passed legislation to repeal it.58Gates himself accepted that the Common Core was failing by 2017.59

Brookings and UIS established the Learning Metrics Task Force (LMTF), which was funded by Hewlett, in 2012. The LMTF focused on “access plus learning,” with “learning” a proxy gerund for quality, and worked through how to measure quality across seven domains—a reassuringly comprehensive perspective on education quality. In anticipation of the inevitable pressure to measure quality more closely in the SDGs, the LMTF reflected an insight to ensure that quality should drive measurement rather than measurement drive quality.60 USAID funded and piloted EGRA and EGMA in over 40 countries by 2011 even before the LMTF was born. The metrics-driven accountability implicit in all of these methodologies was explicitly formulated in the DAC evaluation principles61 in 1991. DAC emphasized development through learning from experience and accountability to donors, national governments, and taxpayers.

Given the dominance of the NPM logics and narrative in global education governance and the fixation on measurement and accountability over the past three decades, we might be forgiven for thinking Girin is prescribing more of the same. His call to marshal all effort to teach all children in sub-Saharan Africa to read is compelling. However, this frame switch to his narrative suggests there might be two reasons why Girin’s carefully crafted asks of the global education community might not garner the agreement he seeks. The first involves the realpolitik of global agreements: the minority-world, majority-world tensions that have played out since the colonial period as East versus West and North versus South; the second involves a weariness with the crisis narrative.

The realpolitik of global education governance

“You are the victim of men who think they are right.”

– Col. John Lawrence: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

Girin argues the real choice we must make is between tacit and explicit prioritisation, that constrained finances will force us to prioritise. In citing the example of an inspiring city municipality, he positions his argument on the ground where real choices are made. Sobral has the best primary schools and highest reading scores in Brazil, despite being located in Ceará, a state with the fifth-lowest per capita GDP in the country. The municipality resolutely focuses on FLN; a closer look, however, reveals just how many other things have to be in place for prioritising FLN to provide any traction.

Cruz and Loureiro’s study,62 which Girin cites, points out that this outcome took 15 years to achieve from 2005. They credit four policy pillars for this achievement. The first three are familiar: (1) a focused curriculum with clear sequencing and prioritisation of foundational learning, not just FLN; (2) effective student assessments; (3) autonomous, accountable management and meritocratic appointments. The fourth is new: (4) prepared and motivated teachers. The city of Sobral is a poster child for the World Bank’s “learning poverty” thrust; the write-up reflects the writers’ NPM-tinted spectacles. For me, it demonstrates how systemically embedded and broadly comprehensive “prioritising FLN” needs to be. Active engagement by teachers, parents, and communities, in addition to sound management, are crucial. To its credit, the study acknowledges the improved infrastructure, transportation, school meals, and teacher career plan that were established in the eight years before any focus on foundational learning was made.

Not mentioned in the World Bank study, however, is Sobral’s part in the redemocratisation process Brazil enjoyed after 20 years of military dictatorship, or Ceará’s and Sobral’s democratic socialist credentials. There were, in fact, constant improvements in education between 1997 and 2004, the period before prioritisation; these included a 148-percent increase in enrolments, an increase in literacy from 40 percent to 90.7 percent by the end year one in primary school, and the construction of 11 new schools. If this is what prioritisation means, we have a lot more to agree on than to disagree on.

It remains true that constrained finances force choices. What Sobral, and any other local administration that is not in the grip of central government, corporations, gangs, war, or natural disaster demonstrates, is that democratic, local decision-making means everything. It means having to prioritise but it will show that despite constrained financing, what matters most is that aid is catalytic when it reinforces local choices.

To frame switch back to the global from the local: the SDGs do not reflect a thoroughly democratic process, strictly, they do not reflect consensus either. Dapo Akande points out that there is no consensus on the meaning of “consensus”63 and the word often comes to mean the opposite of its common meaning when international bodies pass agreements that have not garnered full support.64 However, the UN’s “global conversations” around the SDG’s engaged nearly 2 million people from 88 countries on the education SDG. Seven million people responded to the My World survey; in response to a question asking what global policy priorities mattered most to them and their families, they selected “a good education” and “better healthcare” as their top priorities.65 The SDGs reflect many compromises, but they have legitimacy and they carry a globally agreed mandate. This cannot simply be jettisoned if someone thinks they have a better idea.

The crisis narrative

“First there was the collapse of civilization: anarchy, genocide, starvation. Then when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, we got the plague.”

– Fender Tremolo: Cyborg

Naming a crisis is always a political choice: Janet Roitman66 argues that policy discourse invokes the idea of crisis in order to construct narratives that designate a “moment of truth.” This will not be an absolute or indisputable truth, but an observation of truth from the observer’s vantage point; its purpose is to produce a particular, intended meaning. Roitman observes that:

“Once we call a problem a crisis we begin to engage in a series of logically interconnected steps that unleashes a characteristic pattern of reasoning. The pattern is familiar and it can be comforting, but it is neither original nor is it innovative.”

Education policy discussions in the public sphere frequently employ a language of crisis.67 In the 1960s and 1980s, there were concerns about a “world educational crisis” in the Global South. The 1983 Nation at Risk education report generated alarm in the US at the “rising tide of mediocrity” that was threatening the future of the country.68 Ten years later, there were concerns about a “world crisis” in adult literacy. Each of these “moments of truth” drew public attention to concerns teachers would have been facing every day and are most likely still facing. If the public attention to the crises was helpful, if teachers are still dealing with it, or whether the crisis morphed into something else, is less clear. The current “global learning crisis” does not denote a new situation: learning is not necessarily worse now than it was before. We do know that this “crisis” spurs on a selective narrative about learning metrics, accountability, a broken international architecture for education, the World Bank’s new idea about “learning poverty” and the prioritisation of FLN within SDG 4. Naming a crisis is always a political choice.

Conclusion: Things to see and feel

“You see, some things I can teach you. Some you learn from books. But there are things that, well, you have to see and feel.”

― Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns

Girin is correct that without reading and numeracy there is no access to the rest of education. However, I hope the frame switches this essay offers to his narrative are persuasive on the following realisations.

First, there is a longer historic trajectory to foundational literacy and numeracy than Girin’s narrative gives us. This history shows us that democratic momentum and a responding political commitment from national government are what matter most. We live in a time of relatively high literacy rates but also very sharp disparities, most significantly in LICs and sub-Saharan Africa. Girin invites policymakers in these countries to choose to make FLN a priority. This is good, any response at the level of global education governance can only be reciprocal to the demand and commitment that is realised at country level.

Most educators will insist that improving outcomes in FLN is inseparable from improving foundational learning more broadly. There is everything to gain from reconceptualising foundational learning as a democratic project rather than a purely technocratic one. This may require thinking (theory) and doing (practice) that is outside of the current policy consensus; it will mean engaging education’s major constituents and stakeholders, teachers, students, parents as well as communities, local government and business in a far more collaborative effort. A groundswell of support is not something money can buy: grants and loans will buy actions and outcomes but national, and ultimately local, ownership makes the difference for thoroughgoing and sustainable change. A focus on foundational literacy and numeracy is a catalytic opportunity for building systems that can deliver quality education from primary through to the end of secondary schooling. This, after all, is the ambition of SDG target 4.1: “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.”

Second, making progress on SDG target 4.6—“By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy”—is crucial precisely because it targets those who did not have an opportunity to develop their foundational education. Progress on this target in LICs and sub-Saharan Africa, and wherever else populations are not highly literate, would greatly reinforce progress on FLN by the end of primary as stipulated in SDG indicator 4.1.1(b). Communities and families do not divide into separate categories by age; if we are to realise gains in achieving SDG 4.1, this will mobilise opportunity and reciprocal momentum for SDG target 4.6.

My invitation to those who have chosen to focus on FLN as a priority, particularly in LICs and sub-Saharan Africa, would be to promote a policy environment that supports broader approaches to FLN. These may include supporting programs in schools to adopt intergenerational approaches, particularly those that draw in families, community members, and older youth. These will contribute to and benefit from FLN programs in schools. It will take political imagination to mobilise society and the economy to respond to these aspirations but doing so will meet with enormous resourcefulness and energy.

Third, the reality of teaching numeracy and literacy every day in an actual primary school reveals the notion of prioritising FLN to be hyperbolic. Numeracy and literacy so interlink with everything else a school needs to do just to make it to lunchtime, it will take too much effort and be too artificial to “extract” them. All the other components of a sensible approach to foundational learning are mutually reinforcing for numeracy and literacy. Indicator SDG 4.1.1 focuses on the

“Proportion of children and young people: (a) in grades 2/3; (b) at the end of primary; and (c) at the end of lower secondary achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in (i) reading and (ii) mathematics, by sex.”

Most teachers and schools already have light-touch indicators, implicitly or explicitly, for the harder-to-measure components of foundational learning. It is entirely feasible to monitor these and manage them well at school, district, and national levels through a combination of self-reporting, and school inspections. These data will present challenges for reliable comparison globally, as do the prevailing normative quantitative approaches. The politics of education measurement are too complex to do any justice here but the education sector would benefit from a critical discussion on different indicator paradigms, the guidance they may offer for global governance and national governments, and the opportunity they offer for advocacy and accountability. It would also be helpful for this global debate to see more meta-evaluation critical research of the systemic outcomes of USAID’s decade-long focus on promoting FNL in recipient countries.

Fourth, the mandate of global agreements is important; unilateral changes, whether tactical or implicit, undermine the principles of international collaboration and global governance. Global organisations also need to respond to what nations, particularly those facing crises, define as their own priorities; it would be an overreach to impose priorities or override national ambitions.69 The role of global governance is to balance and calibrate what international education aid commits to providing and what countries feel compelled themselves to achieve.

The SDGs propose a radical set of propositions; they are not a wish list from the Global South to the Global North. They challenge all national governments on their democratic mandate; they challenge global geopolitics and the terms of world trade and; they challenge mutual accountabilities around international collaboration and international aid. The SDGs enjoy legitimacy because the UN, however flawed, is the only globally representative body there is. SDG 4 has added legitimacy because it was exemplary in its inclusive, consultative process.

My quibble with crisis talk is not because I wish to detract in any way from the urgency of teaching children to read by the end of primary school; it is because I find Roitman profound on how crises create blind spots in our thinking and that these enable particular ideas, actors, and actions while obscuring others. Girin’s contextual frame for his narrative foregrounds decision-makers rather than teachers; FLN rather than foundational learning; primary education rather than pre-school or secondary education; time-bound interventions rather than systems; NPM rather than participatory management or social accountability; and fiscal restraints rather than redistributive stimuli. These, like what you call a crisis and what you do not, are political choices.

Finally, if the world’s political and financial systems cannot deliver the sustainable development that everybody wants, and to which the SDGs aspire, the problem is about global capitalism, not about what people want. The last line of Girin’s compelling essay suggests that anyone who does not agree with what he says should recommend another way forward, provided it “retains contact with fiscal realities.” This suggests a there-is-no-alternative rationale for his narrative when many question precisely the “fiscal realities” to which he refers. I am sure Girin simply means “do the best with what you have,” but his last line implies two arguments he does not intend to make. The first, an austerity argument that children must learn to read by ten years-of-age because there will be no state money to teach them anything else after that, the second, a colonial argument that this is valid for children in LICs and especially sub-Saharan Africa—there are other ambitions for children in the Global North.

Rushdie was only half-right that “the only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step out of the frame.” He omits to mention they will find themselves in another picture inside another frame, which is precisely why “reading the world not just the word” and receiving a quality education matter so much.