Improving school systems from beyond school walls
21 Apr 2017
Girls walk to class on their first day back to school, in Grafton, a suburb of Freetown, Sierra Leone.
No one would disagree that education systems should develop every childâ€™s personal and social skills, and should equip them with the competencies needed for adult work. Recognising this, governments aim to achieve the dual ambitions of economic growth and social stability through investment in schools.However, with limited public appetite for higher spending, and increasing (but not always convincing) evidence on the value of private schooling, governments know that they are not simply free to â€œbreak the bank.â€What is more, a glance at what is achieved through public spending on education services cross-nationally (whether on enrolment, attainment, learning or equity), shows governments in all countries can do better. Despite education being lauded as lifeâ€™s â€˜great equaliserâ€™ and the vast majority of children in the worldâ€™s wealthiest countries accessing over a decade of compulsory schooling, many children cannot take full advantage of what schools have to offer.For a start, too many children are out of school. Moreover, the intergenerational transmission of education outcomes is generally strong, with global evidence suggesting it affects around 2 in 5 children on average (closer to 3 in 5 in Latin America), and inequality in educational outcomes are still high, and strongly linked to socio-economic backgrounds worldwide.These failings matter. Every under-educated child represents lost personal opportunities, underutilised economic and social potential, and a litany of wasted public resources and future social costs.Yet still, today, education policies take priority in expenditure during childhood, and in advanced welfare states and beyond, the bulk of public investment during childhood is channelled through the compulsory school system. Across the OECD for instance, of the total average public expenditure on each child â€“ about USD 180,000 â€“ over half is allocated to compulsory education.
A volunteer teacher reads a book to children in a day-care centre in her home in the squatter community of BASECO in Manila.This â€˜educationâ€™ spending does not include other education-focused spending in broader social protection systems, including, for example, early childhood education and care, conditional cash transfers and job training for youth. This leads inevitably to the question of whether existing, and relatively expensive, education systems are worth the costâ€¦ or, more appropriately, where do we target reforms.Are you tempted to say: â€˜it could be worse if less was spentâ€™? Well the answer could be yes, but in the complex realm of how governments try to achieve their educational goals, if we focus exclusively on â€˜how muchâ€™ is spent we donâ€™t do justice to the sum of expert knowledge on what drives better educational outcomes.The discussion is more likely to be productive if focused on the â€˜whenâ€™ and â€˜howâ€™ of government spending across the board, because this actually aligns with some key findings from child and education policy evaluations, such as:
- Optimal investment in childrenâ€™s education and development suggests that public spending should decline as children age, whereas in most advanced countries spending peaks at 13 or 14 years of age.
- Evidence on childrenâ€™s brain development, in particular the development of grey matter in early- and mid-childhood and on the impact of stress on adolescent brain development and behaviours, highlights critical times in the life course for targeted interventions (Even so, accessible and affordable preschool and out-of-school facilities are often lacking).
- Home environment factors (e.g. deprivation and parenting practices) drive a significant proportion of the variation in educational achievement in school (net of factors such as teacher qualification, peer effects, and school management factors), in particular via the preschool early years, yet all of these policy areas combined receive less public investment than education.