Essay 20

How the Global Education Aid Architecture Can Work in Harmony on Foundational Learning

Laura Savage



I am tempted to respond Girin’s
essay on the pathway to
progress on SDG 4 in rhyme:

Raising the floor
On SDG 4
Is something
That needs us to fight.

Said Girin in prose
(to friends and no foes)
“these kids need to read
And to write.”

Do you agree?
(asked implicitly)
The answer:
A vehement yes.

But “what” might be clear,
The “how” is (I fear)
Tied up in a
Battle of chess.


But I am no Amanda Gorman, or Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’m a bureaucrat within the global education aid architecture. In his recent paper, Girin Beeharry challenges this architecture to think about our role, responsibility, and focus in efforts to meet the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) on education.

Let us be clear: we will not meet SDG 4. We are nine years out and data forecasts that none of the 10 education-related SDGs is likely to be met. This was the case even before COVID-19 resulted in global school closures and set progress further back. I remember being at the World Education Forum in 2015, sitting in the bar and hearing the stories of the sherpas trying their very hardest to get everything into the Education 2030 Framework for Action. There was a sense of achievement then that “learning” was back at the heart of the education agenda.1 But while the word might have been, the action required was not.

Six years later, Girin proposes a way for the global education aid community to act on this: to make foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN) the priority. He does not suggest that such a global focus will be a fix for all education problems, nor that global education aid actors are “the” most important group. But he does suggest that global actors have a role to play, and that our collective action can contribute a piece of the puzzle.

So, to Girin’s question of whether I agree with the need for a focus on FLN, I say “yes.” The logic of focusing on one goal is sound: with a huge set of challenges and a limited budget,2 it is not possible to do everything at once. It makes sense to focus on foundational learning out of all of the education goals. The benefits of basic literacy and numeracy are higher than we had imagined. Children who can read, write, and count have a stronger foundation to progress to more complicated subjects and skills. Children who don’t learn are more likely to drop out, so access and learning goals are intertwined, even though policy responses to access do not necessarily lead to children learning. Learning to read can mean simultaneously learning to problem solve, to work in teams, and to think critically.

I am slightly more optimistic than Girin on the question of whether the global education aid architecture is up to the task of focusing on FLN. While I do not think it realistic that every global education aid actor can or will sign up to this focus, I think there is significant alignment among some of the biggest funders and—crucially—those who (Crawfurd et al., forthcoming) ministry of education officials describe as influential in-country. A small group of people representing the World Bank; the Global Partnership for Education; UNICEF; UNESCO, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO); and USAID are enthusiastic about the potential of the Foundational Learning Compact to focus efforts. Girin and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation education team played a significant role in bringing these actors and this focus together. Yes, there is still debate and push back; yes, significant funds will continue to be spent on other priorities; yes, this is a tiny group of people—but there is palpable excitement in virtual meeting rooms about the momentum from this. It is stronger alignment than I’ve known in my career, which started in the heady days after the Paris Declaration. Back then, I worked for an African ministry of education and wrote a paper for a local education group called “Business Unusual,” challenging local donors to support problem and priority identification with the government, and to work together. Fifteen years later and, who knows, perhaps such alignment could happen. Timing is good: there is a window of opportunity post COVID-related school closures to recognise low student learning levels and not to blame the failing school systems.

I could end my response now, in agreement with Girin. But… I have a four “buts”...

But — FLN is only a starting line; we need a sequence of priorities

FLN is a good focus but it is not a good goal. It is, in fact, a pitiful goal. We are talking here about reaching for children being able to read a simple story by age 10. What Girin is asking for is to get to the starting line. I would push the global aid architecture further to set out a sequenced forecast or priorities (and, in so doing, build buy-in amongst those for whom FLN isn’t their immediate priority, but who can see “their” priority coming up). What would this be? FLN for the mass of students in-school then … target those who still remain out-of-school? Early childhood education? Then (while student learning gains at the primary level are emerging, and work ongoing but with less concentrated focus on secondary, technical, and higher education) a push upwards from primary? Ministers of education and finance around the world would value a broad roadmap that suggests sequences of priorities for different places in different contexts.

But — achieving FLN will be an uphill battle; we need more success stories

It may be a pitiful starting line but universal FLN is going to be incredibly difficult to achieve. The phrase “global learning crisis” is used widely in documents and meetings, but there seems to me to be little understanding by most of how far off we are. Learning profiles are flat in a lot of places, and there are few examples of these improving at the scale and pace we want to see. For example, RISE teams picked seven massive ambitious reforms and over the past six years tracked these; while there are some successes, the overall message is that learning gains are slow. The Learning at Scale team sought eight examples of proven success to explore what happened; even finding the positive case studies was hard. We scour just a handful of examples for lessons on how political incentives, state capability and citizen demand align around learning as an education goal. So there is a double case for focusing on FLN: it is a sensible starting point, and it requires concentrated effort.

That it requires such effort is somewhat confounding. For it is not the case that we do not know what works to improve learning (as narrative had it in 2015). We have a wealth of knowledge from OECD countries on how to teach children to read, write, and count. The literature on why learning gains in lower- and lower-middle-income countries are low and slow is small—though growing with new work on the politics of education reform. But reflections on why reforms did not work as expected are too often shared in the last two minutes of a conference presentation, after the hard data. Why didn’t a project to hire contract teachersproduce the same learning gains at large scale after being successful at small scale? Why did a school management project get scaled up when it hadn’t produced learning gains at small scale? Reflections, given anecdotally by researchers, education practitioners, aid donors and candid government officials, conclude that a lot comes down to politics and implementation failure.

The RISE programme proposes that learning gains will come when incentives within education systems are shifted from being “coherent for access” to being “coherent for learning.” This can make it sound easy. What constitutes coherence? When are enough actors aligned to make a difference? From the perspective of Girin’s paper, what role can the education aid community play in supporting or prompting such coherence? In one country I worked with, donors were actually incredibly aligned and proposed a series of reforms to teach children at the right level, to provide additional specialist support to children with disabilities, and to improve the quality of early childhood education. While the government incorporated these objectives into the education sector plan and agreed to a series of targets against which aid funding would be released, in practice these reforms did not move. We don’t have formal evidence of why, but at one of my regular, informal, over-cheesecake chats with a senior official, he mused that the political will was not there amongst all those who held decision making power, that those in the implementing institutions did not have the technical capability to make the changes, and that there was insufficient public (and teacher) clamour for these reforms—indeed parents were particularly wary of the Teaching at the Right Level approach, with its move away from a rote-learning approach, because they expected their children to recite the demonstrated knowledge that comes from rote learning. We aligned donors hadn’t tackled the incentive structures and accountability relationships.

But — “what” isn’t enough; we need to focus on practical questions of “how”

Alignment of global education aid actors on FLN may help with priority setting but won’t get around these politics and implementation failure issues. But when ministers of education and finance are asking for ideas and support on how to raise student learning outcomes, it will not be enough to say “focus on foundational learning.” Girin’s proposition must be taken further, to urge global education aid donors to support particular approaches proven to help children read, write, and count (as, indeed, the Gates Foundation has done) and to iterate in applying these approaches in new contexts. The FLN agenda is going to need some concrete, practical messages on what to do.

For example, to achieve FLN, basic education systems will need to shift to teach at the level of the child. This is the message that is coming through loudest and clearest from the evidence base (such as in the recent Smart Buys report). But what does it actually mean in practice? What do governments and practitioners need to do? There are some very practical tools being developed to support governments that want to take this approach (these and these on structured pedagogy stand out). But there must be nuance with this practical support: global education aid actors will need to be careful not to give the message that structured pedagogy is a quick fix. Or that reforming curriculum, teacher training, and learning content all at once is an easy—or necessarily possible—ask.

The other strong practical recommendation might be to invest in data generation, in particular of learning profiles. It is currently too easy to deny the scale of the problem. Providing information on the benefits of education is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve education outcomes, but this information needs to be specific and context-relevant. For FLN to become the core of the global education agenda, regular and reliable data generated through national data systems needs to tell the story clearly of who is not learning the basics, how far off they are, and point to why. This story is starting to emerge, from UNESCO’s efforts to generate more, and more accurate, learning data; from the World Bank’s generation of proxies of education system performance; from RISE analysis of learning profiles; and from CGD’s linking of learning, teacher, and education administration data. Data systems are not an excuse but a fundamental building block of accountable education systems; so let’s fund them.

But — global aid alignment is just one piece of the puzzle; we also need to work differently

Girin’s paper is third in a series of challenges to the global education aid architecture published in the International Journal of Educational Development, after Nick Burnett’s in 2019 and Keith Lewin’s in 2020. All three are right to critique and challenge the global education aid architecture. I agree with the thrust of all three, in particular with Nick’s conclusion that even though fixing the architecture would not solve all global education issues, it could result in better allocation of funding and “would be an important step that could make a real difference.” Alignment of messaging is broadly a good thing, and can help with improving the focus of both aid and domestic financing, as Keith Lewin calls for. But it will only ever go so far—there will always be multiple and contradictory pressures at play, making the alignment of a small group of actors on one message an achievement in itself. Even among the small group willing to focus on FLN, there is debate about which forum to use as a coordination mechanism; such squabbling is unhelpful.

But clearly a focus on FLN is not going to fix the education aid architecture, and it is not going to result in dramatic learning gains by itself. The large literature on the geopolitics of aid and development tempers expectations. Global aid actors can tinker at the edges of the various complex systems within which we work but cannot control change or buy outcomes. Education aid actors can nudge incentives to prioritise foundational learning or, when incentives in a country are already aligned, can add funding, or voice, or influence to boost potential for progress.

I think that one way to achieve what Girin is pitching for is for some among the global education aid architecture to start seeing themselves (to borrow from Duncan Green) not as architects and engineers, but as “ecosystem gardeners,” to make change happen. This means working in a different way. And there is good news: this is possible through new or planned vehicles if used well. In countries where there is strong demand to tackle foundational learning, investment cases linked to the World Bank’s Foundational Learning Compact are intended to create a country-specific picture of how to achieve learning gains. GPE capacity grants can support deep diagnostics to test the fundamental assumptions about why student learning isn’t happening and improve national data systems to track the effectiveness of implementation. FCDO, USAID, UNESCO, and UNICEF aim to coordinate inputs from their respective vehicles for supporting a new culture of evidence in education, whereby research is co-created with government and implementers, and strong feedback loops are in place to ensure that implementation failures are fixed (to the extent possible) along the way.

In a push for progress on FLN, global aid actors will need to balance ambition for results with an iterative and politically astute approach. A group within the global education aid community have tried in recent years to see if support to local problem identification could help to work out why children are not learning and point to what might be done in that particular context. The conclusion was that education system diagnostics are not a quick tool to give an easy answer but that the dialogue has been useful. I would challenge those using the phrase “education system” to pursue FLN through education’s shift to a “problem-driven iterative adaptation” or “doing development differently” approach. In this, we might start to understand better some of the perennial “why” issues.

A final thought

One thing that makes me nervous about recommendations focusing on the global education aid architecture, no matter how much I agree with them, is the risk of depicting a “them” and “us” division between aid funders and aid recipient national governments. The political ethnographer part of me, who thinks a lot about the politics of aid, and the colonial historian in me, who traced 19th century investment into Ashanti curriculum, is wary of a simplistic “global” versus “national” narrative. The politics of aid is a dance; donors do not hold all of the power. Donors are not a homogenous group, any more than aid recipients are. In cohering around the FLN agenda, to the extent that this is possible, the global aid architecture should be careful that this does not become a “global” agenda. The “them” versus “us” aid relationship can become oppositional and have perverse consequences.

Alignment on a clear first-order priority, FLN, would be a good thing. But there is a much wider global education community out there who need to align on this message. This is not a conversation for us among the global aid architecture. We can do some good things—like stop arguing the sub-issues, invest in data, facilitate conversations, and join the dots. We have got responsibility and power and good intentions. But let’s not give the impression that we can fix this, or that it is “their” problem.

I am a non-resident fellow at CGD and employed as a senior education advisor for the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Opinions and ideas expressed here are my own, not my employer’s. As a UK civil servant, I am bound by the Civil Service Code and follow these principles for online participation.