Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Basics and beyond: What drives national progress in education?

Time (GMT +01) 10:30 13:00
Hero image description: 855.jpg Image license:Creative Commons

Susan Nicolai - Head of Development Progress project and Education Dimension lead, ODI

Suzanne Grant Lewis - Director A.I., UNESCO IIEP    

Rakesh Rajani  - Founder and Head, Twaweza

Nick Burnett - Managing Director, Results for Development

Chris Berry - Head of Education Profession, DFID

Daniel Contreras - Independent Education Consultant, Chile 

Dr. Baterdene - Executive Director, American University of Mongolia

Dr. Okwach Abagi - Director, OWN and Associates, Kenya

Joseph Wales - Research Officer, Politics and Governance, ODI


Kevin Watkins - Executive Director, ODI

This event will be followed by an invite only roundtable to further discuss the issues, chaired by Sean Coughlan (BBC) with speakers including Lant Pritchett (CGD and Harvard), Pauline Rose (University of Cambridge), Liesbet Steer (Brookings CUE) and Rachel Hinton (DFID), in addition to several ODI contributors.

The event was opened by Kevin Watkins (Executive Director, ODI) who welcomed delegates and provided an overview of ODI’s Development Progress project. The event focussed on progress in education – one of 8 dimensions of wellbeing that are being measured through by the project. With the economic growth narrative returning to the education debate, Kevin reminded participants of the critical dichotomy between centralised and decentralised systems of education and the reality of the global economy’s contingency on knowledge-based labour markets and skill development through education, meaning that the idea that we should separate the growth agenda from the human development agenda is mistaken. The education case studies launched at this event try to capture some of the policies and conditions in place at a national level to highlight the very different starting points to progress;  as a result of this, these starting points will be important to be considered when looking at the challenges facing us as the Post-2015 agenda emerges.

Susan Nicolai (Head of Development Progress, Education Dimension Lead, ODI) then went on to provide a brief overview of the education dimension of the research project. The case studies being presented focussed on improving education quality in Indonesia and Chile and extending post-primary education access in Mongolia and Kenya. For each case study, key drivers of progress were explored to understand the differing contexts and conditions of development. In Mongolia, strong demand and high value placed on post-primary education, expanded provisions through investment, policy reform and aims to reach the unreached were found to drive progress. In Kenya however, the demand for education progress coupled with a strong history of community provisions, contributions and school fee abolition were found to be the determinants of progress. When extending post-primary education access in Chile, a focus on teacher upgrading and a political emphasis on quality were highlighted, as was the case in Indonesia, teacher upgrading also played a role in driving progress alongside certification, decentralisation and targeting support to more marginalised children.

Suzanne Grant Lewis (Acting Director, UNESCO, IIEP) gave a series of remarks following the opening of the event, stressing that despite a consensus on the need for a new forward-looking education agenda that reaches the most marginalised while giving more emphasis to equity, quality and learning, a key concern at this stage is how we ensure that future goals are met at a better pace of progress and sustainably. Robust plans, she argued, are the pathway to a strong education system, and no single entity can create sustainable education systems alone. Suzanne went on to reflect that we need to look at what we have gained from experience of supporting developing countries and policy dialogues to ensure education planning is both visionary and pragmatic.

Moving on to a national focus in the event, Regsuren Bat-Erdene (Executive Director, American University of Mongolia) talked about post-primary education in Mongolia. He outlined the background to education systems in Mongolia, highlighting that the country recorded the most rapid fall in school life expectancy in the 1990s but responded with the greatest improvement among Central Asia transition economies. Regsuren attributed this to the strong demand for and high value placed on post-primary education; an evolving policy framework; and expanded provision through investment by the government of Mongolia in education.

Okwach Abagi (Director, OWN and Associates, Kenya) followed, giving a country-level perspective of progress in education in Kenya. Kenya has experienced a significant rise in school life expectancy and secondary enrolment rates from the early-2000s up to 2009. Okwach described a strong political will and commitment to education beyond only the basic levels, coupled with an increasing demand for higher levels of education by the public as the driving factors behind this progress. Outlining remaining challenges, he said that the next steps will be to tackle entrenched inequality across education systems in terms of regional, economic and gender inequalities, whilst increasing focus on quality of education. Further to this, he argued that it is important to maintain and sustain the gains in access and participation in post-primary education.

Nicholas Burnett (Managing Director, Results for Development) followed as a discussant, highlighting key areas which required further focus and suggesting that we should think of results not just in terms of averages, but distribution, and that we shouldn’t forget about the inputs because we are focusing on results. He highlighted the importance of the sequencing of reforms as opposed to the sequencing of change, as well as the need for innovation in education and the accountability of education systems to society. Regarding accountability, Nicholas further raised the question: are people developing the education goals held accountable to the developing countries?

Daniel Contreras (Independent Education Consultant, Chile) went on to deliver an overview of the Chile case study, highlighting that improvements have been made in education quality and that there has been a steady strengthening of access alongside broader economic and social development. Positive changes in outcomes can be noted from Chile’s PISA results, while improvement of teacher professionalism and conditions coupled with the strong political and financial prioritisation of education are key changes that serve to characterise the development. He concluded by noting that political continuity based on solid funding agreements allows persistent progress in education.

Joseph Wales (Research Officer, ODI) then joined the discussion with an overview of the research carried out in Indonesia. He outlined that improvement in enrolment and retention in post-primary education in-country are evident, with gaps narrowing in lower secondary completion rates. Despite notable progress, challenges do persist in the form of education to employment transition, early childhood care and education, equity and absolute learning outcomes, with Indonesia still lagging behind PISA benchmarks. The main drivers of the progress achieved have been identified as an improved teacher workforce, up-skilling existing teacher workforces through salary increases, an increased emphasis on raising the standards teachers would have to meet, supporting decentralisation and school-based management, an increased budget and targeted support to address inequities.

Rakesh Rajani (Founder and Head of Twaweza) followed the final case study overview as a discussant. His key point was that political imagination is critical to the improvement of learning, not only schooling. For education to remain high on a political agenda, he believes that visible and tangible results are required, which is why huge efforts are placed on inputs into schooling and less into outputs. He then expressed a concern over the current alliance of convenience, with international and country actors focussing on components of the education system which feel comfortable – such as enrolment rates – in spite of a well recognised quality crisis.

Chris Berry (Head of Education Profession, DFID) provided the concluding thoughts to the event, outlining that the difficult and long-term process that we are now faced with in terms of sustaining and accelerating progress in education is no longer the question of if education is financed or teachers are trained. Instead, Chris suggested the focus has shifted to the task of exploring the best ways to allocate education finance and looking at how teachers are trained in different ways. He finished by stating that shift is occurring and in the Post-2015 agenda, systems research will be important to direct further progress, a process in which support from the research community and policy makers will be critical.


​Significant progress in education has been made across the globe over the past decades. Many nations have stepped up efforts to improve their education systems, with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focusing particular attention on completion of primary schooling and improving gender equity, and Education for All setting a broader ambitious agenda. While many countries have made progress toward MDG targets, an increasing number of countries are aiming beyond these goals, concentrating for instance on improving quality or extending access beyond basic education – issues likely to form part of the post-2015 agenda.

This public event takes us beyond discussions on global goals to examine political and socio-economic factors that drive education progress at a national level, looking particularly at improvements in quality at primary level and expanding access to post-primary education. Country case studies conducted as part of ODI’s Development Progress project offer lessons particular to these areas, and provide some broader learning for current efforts to focus on education systems as a whole.

The launch will discuss findings from:

  • Case studies on improving education quality in Chile and Indonesia
  • Case studies on extending post-primary education access in Mongolia and Kenya
  • A working paper on how political dynamics affect different areas of education progress

Drawing on these country experiences and others, we will explore:

  • What are some of the enabling factors that have seen progress in improving quality and extending opportunities at post-primary levels?
  • In what ways does education financing affect national education systems in achieving these goals?
  • How do national political dynamics like visibility and user demand affect change and reform within the education sector?
  • Despite broader progress in education, challenges – such as equity and school-to-work transitions – tend to remain: what can be done about them?
  • What does this mean for education systems research and work moving into post-2015?

Join us in person or online to hear from a panel of experts who will explore these questions and others on Tuesday 8 July, 10.30 – 13.00. 

Follow #educationprogress on Twitter for live coverage.