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The elephant in the room: Will more money get more kids learning?

Written by Susan Nicolai


​Education is hitting the headlines these days, and it’s about time. The Global Partnership for Education meeting in Brussels this week saw some 600 government ministers, donor representatives and civil society delegates come together to pledge toward a US$ 3.5 billion replenishment of the partnership’s coffers and gather commitments by developing countries to increase their own education spending.  It’s great to see folks like Malala Yousafzai – who knows firsthand how critical education is – and Gordon Brown – who helps raise this issue at the highest political levels – leading the charge.

Lord knows that education needs the money.  In 2000, at the Dakar World Education Forum, world leaders committed to ensure that no country seriously dedicated to achieving education for all should be held back due to a lack of resources.  Fourteen year on, they’ve failed in this promise.  The Education For All Global Monitoring Report estimates a financing gap of US$26 billion per year for basic education, or US$38 billion if lower secondary is included.  Moreover, this financing gap growing, and recent analysis shows that aid to education has fallen by over US$1.3 billion since 2010.

But there’s an elephant in the room.  Will more money actually get 57 million children who are out of school back into the classroom?  And will pledges mean a better quality education for the 250 million children who are still not learning to a minimum standard?

Over the past few years, ODI has been engaged in researching a series of country case studies that have seen development progress.  We’ve been trying to understand, where, how and why progress has been achieved in order to ensure that it is sustained and accelerated – particularly as the Millennium Development Goals wind down and a new post-2015 development framework is fashioned.

On education, we’ve looked at how Benin, Cambodia, and Ethiopia each ushered in huge increases in primary school enrolments and reduced gender gaps.  Alongside these, four new case studies we’re launching on 8 July look closely at where countries have made gains on some of the issues likely to form part of the new education post-2015 agenda.  Case studies on Chile and Indonesia explore how these countries have made gains in education quality, and others look into Kenya and Mongolia’s progress on expanding access at the level of secondary and tertiary education.

Despite these stories of progress, they are still far still being a story of education success.  While each country has seen increased domestic expenditure to education, often boosted by international aid, they struggle with a number of fundamental challenges on access, quality and equity.  

In Ethiopia, public spending on education has risen from under 10% of budget expenditure in the 1980s to 24% by 2007.  International aid was a critical component, accounting for around 17% of education expenditure in 2010.  Along with this increase in money, Ethiopia’s primary net enrolment ratio increased from 22% in 1992 to 83% in 2009, an incredible leap for one of the poorest countries in Africa.  However, despite these gains, many chronically poor and vulnerable remain out of school, low quality remains a problem, and expansion of secondary has struggled to keep a pace.

In Indonesia, a commitment to devote 20% of the national budget to education has seen funding almost triple in real terms since 2001, with spending of US $35.3bn in 2012.  International donor contributions to primary education have also increased in recent years, from US$32 million in 2000 to US$163 million in 2010.  While Indonesia has a long history of high primary enrolment, it saw improvements in lower secondary completion, growing from a rate of 63% in 2000 to 76% 2012.  Moreover, significant education reform has been focused on quality, where it was one of only eight countries whose PISA reading results improved significantly over 2000-2009 (8.4%).  Despite this, there are concerns about absolute learning levels still being low, there are persistent problems with equity, and questions are being raised about the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of reforms.

Kenya’s education budget has generally above 20% of total government expenditure for a long time, and due to economic growth its public spending on education rose by 31% in real terms between 2003 and 2009.  The contribution of international aid has remained modest, but increased from a share of 0.02% of the Kenyan education budget in the mid 1990s to 6% by 2008.  A primary net enrolment rate in 2002 of 62% rose to 82% by 2009.  Moreover, school life expectancy rose from 8.4 years in 2000 to 11 years in 2009, meaning that the average student now completes lower secondary education.  Yet inequality appears to be growing, with widening gaps between income groups, regional and ethnic groups, there are major concerns over quality, and there is a major skills mismatch as school leavers enter the workforce.

So back to our question, which is perhaps a bit of an elephant in the room in Brussels this week:  will more money get more kids learning? 

Our case studies of progress show a glass half full or half empty, depending on your perspective. Certainly progress would not have happened without strong domestic and international financing to education in each case.  But, as our research has made clear, more money alone will not drive balanced gains across measures of education access, quality and equity.

So what more is needed?  Over the next few weeks we’ve invited a number of experts to blog about their thoughts on this issue.  We’ve asked them to consider what we have learned about education progress – in some cases globally and in others from a country perspective – highlighting the biggest victories, trade-offs, and lessons as we move toward a new set of post-2015 goals.  Watch this space, and if you can join us in person or on-line for 8 July to listen and share your views.