Four quick takeaways on the World Bank’s education report

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The World Bank today published the 2018 edition of its World Development Report. For the first time, the report is focused entirely on education, and tackling what they call the “learning crisis,” where “even after several years in school, millions of children cannot read, write or do basic math.”

While the report is several hundred pages long, with nuanced and thoughtful discussions of many difficult issues, here are four quick thoughts we came away with:

1. The inequality crisis in education gets attention

The World Development Report (WDR) recognizes the vast challenges poor children face compared to those from more privileged backgrounds, as well as how this translates into gaps in learning outcomes.

In Cameroon, for example, the report says only five percent of girls from the poorest quintile of households had learned enough to continue in school, versus 76 percent from the richest quintile. This is tragic, but should be no surprise. In Oxfam’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index, Cameroon ranks 38 out of 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa on social spending and only spent a low 3 percent of its GDP on education in 2013.

Bringing inequality into the education discussion is vital; the two are intrinsically linked. The gap between the rich and the poor is impossible to narrow without providing the poor with the skills and abilities to climb out of poverty.

2. Privatization is no panacea

The WDR will disappoint ardent believers in private education, saying there is no reliable evidence showing private schooling leads to better outcomes. Furthermore, the report recognizes that “Fees and opportunity costs are still major financial barriers to schooling.”

Oxfam and others have spoken out against the Bank’s support for “low-fee” private schools—research shows they often exclude girls and children with disabilities, and force poor families to choose between their child’s education or putting enough food on the table.

Despite this, the Bank continues to support these schools. The Bank’s private-lending arm, the International Finance Corporation, has invested in Bridge Academies and other for-profit providers. The Bank also encourages public-private partnerships in education in the poorest countries through financing from the International Development Association.

3. Misdiagnosing the problem, distorted solutions

The World Development Report spills a lot of ink blaming the learning crisis on such real problems as ill-prepared learners, ineffective teaching, mismanaged resources and poor governance -- rather than looking at why these things happen.

Here’s the bottom line: all of these can be connected to wildly under-resourced education systems. Trained teachers and administrators, robust oversight— this all calls for funding.

This is why it’s baffling that the WDR is so light on…

4. Financing, the missing piece of the puzzle

The WDR says only under certain conditions will financing for education pay off. In fact, in nearly every developing country, more financing is critical to improving learning. This does not mean uncoordinated “inputs,” but instead, comprehensive systemic investments.

What the World Development Report recommends-- good school management, access to early childhood care and nutrition, and better teacher training and support programs – all requires serious investment. The vast majority of developing countries are spending far less than is required to provide adequate quality education.

  • Data from the OECD shows that for the vast majority of poor countries, higher education spending translates into higher scores in science. Likewise, there’s similar data available for math scores.
  • UNESCO estimated there’s a $39 billion gap in yearly education spending to meet the Sustainable Development Goals’ education target to provide universal pre-primary, primary and secondary education.
  • The Education Commission said aid to education needs to be six times higher than what it was in 2012.

It might seem obvious that governments should spend more on education, but here we see the Bank saying resources matter only under a specific set of circumstances. Why is the Bank sending a competing message?

The World Bank is not a dispassionate observer; their guidance carries a lot of weight and influences what finance ministries put money towards. This is especially true this year when the Global Partnership for Education, a major multi-lateral education fund for poor countries, is replenishing its resources. We urged the Bank back in April to come out strongly in in favor of more education funding.

To be clear, more funding alone won’t solve the education crisis, but it will not be solved without it. We believe it’s irresponsible for the WDR to give the appearance that the crisis has nothing to do with current education funding levels. It’s a shame that the Bank passed up their chance to make this message clear.

This entry posted by Katie Malouf Bous, Oxfam Education and International Financial Institutions lead, on 27 September 2017.

Photo: Thankgod Chigizie sits inside his school classroom were he attends school in Oduoha community of Rumuekpe Rivers State in Niger Delta area of Nigeria. Rumuekpe community was heavily destroyed during the conflict among various rival militants and cult gangs over access to oil money which led to inter-communal violence that killed many people, including women and children, from 2005-08. Thousands more were displaced by fighting that left homes, schools and churches in ruins with many suffering poverty and homelessness. Credit: George Osodi / Panos for Oxfam, June 2015