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News, 11/15/2017

World Bank report draws attention to education in Finland

The World Development Report on education seeks ways to address the learning crisis in developing countries. The report was published in Finland on November 6th.

First the good news: most enrolment gaps in basic education are closing between high- and low-income countries. Schooling has expanded at historically unprecedented rates. In Bangladesh, for example, by 2010 the average worker had completed more years of schooling than the typical worker in France in 1975. The years of schooling completed by the average adult in the developing world more than tripled between 1950 and 2010. The rate of progress in the global education goals has been remarkable.

Then the bad news: schooling is not the same as learning, and learning outcomes are in many countries so poor that the World Bank’s recent World Development Report warns of ‘a learning crisis’ in global education.

At grade 3, three in four students in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda did not understand a simple written sentence, while in rural India the same proportion of students could not solve a simple subtraction, according to the report. Learning outcomes are almost always much worse for the disadvantaged. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of children reach adulthood without even the most basic life skills. They are at a disadvantage in society, because they have poor skills for interpreting many types of written texts, such as job offers, medication labels and bank statements, or they do not know how numbers work so that they could buy and sell in markets, set family budgets and interpret loan agreements.

“Exclusion in education is easy to identify when a child is not even going to school. However, exclusion is hidden when a child goes to school every day, but does not learn there anything,” says Halsey Rogers, the other leader of the team preparing the report.

Photo: MFA / Erja-Outi Heino
Nearly all children start basic education in Mozambique, but the quality of teaching can be poor because the population has grown rapidly and the school classes are large. Ana, a first grader, attends a comprehensive school in the Macia District of Gaza Province together with more than 1,800 other children.

Teachers one of the keys to better learning

Poor learning outcomes have many determinants, including problems created by malnutrition at early age and poor health, poor school administration and the general education policy. Teachers are often absent from school, and they can themselves lack the skills to be effective: in 14 Sub-Saharan countries, the average grade 6 teacher performs no better on reading tests than do the highest-performing students from that grade. Many countries have high student dropout rates, and millions of children in conflict-affected countries do not go to school at all.

What could be done to address the situation? The report seeks to find solutions to the learning crisis by examining successful education reforms and examples of rapid education expansions across the globe.  In 2016 the authors of the report visited Finland, a top-ranking country in education, to learn about the Finnish education system, and on many occasions the report gives Finland as an example of reforms generating better learning outcomes. Director-General of the Finnish National Agency for Education Olli-Pekka Heinonen was a member of the advisory panel for the team writing the report this year.

“Education is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and a global challenge where Finland has a lot to offer. Finland is, for example, known for its high-quality teacher education. Our schooling system takes into account all groups of people, and it builds on equality and mutual trust. This approach has worked well for us,” says Heinonen.

Examples of successful reforms are found in Finland’s partner countries in development cooperation. One such example is Vietnam, now Finland’s trading partner: in 2012 Vietnam surprised the world when the 2012 PISA results showed that its 15-year-olds were performing at the same level as those in Germany, even though Vietnam was a lower-middle-income country. Other encouraging examples mentioned in the report are Malaysia and Tanzania which have recently launched promising society-wide collaboration approaches to systematically improving learning.

Photo: MFA / Erja-Outi Heino
The educational sector is a priority in Finland’s development cooperation in Mozambique. Ambassador Laura Torvinen and Under-Secretary of State Elina Kalkku meet Kailany and Maria, grade 5 students in a comprehensive school in the Macia district of Gaza Province.

Harnessing research to support policy-making

There are no ready-made formulas to better learning outcomes. Nevertheless, the report has found examples where the whole education system has jumped to a new level over a short period of time. There are unprecedented levels of information available on effective solutions for schools, classrooms and learning processes. Although Finland’s approach cannot be replicated in developing countries as such, new teaching methods, ways to motivate students and teachers, and techniques facilitating learning can serve as starting points in other countries as well.

The report gives three key recommendations for better learning outcomes worldwide:

First, there should be better ways to assess learning. At present only a half of the developing world are able to adequately measure learning outcomes after basic education. The figures are important, because they allow people to set targets, influence policy-making and identify the groups that are left behind.

Secondly, schools should serve all students and reduce inequalities. Children should be prepared for learning even before they start school through better nutrition and stimulation and pre-primary education. There should be more education for teachers, and they should have access to new techniques that help them adjust their teaching to each child’s level of learning. Schools must have better administration.

Thirdly, the whole system should work for learning. The whole society should get involved in reforming the school system, and schools and other relevant actors should be held accountable for learning outcomes. There must be a political will and resources to develop the school system, and people must demand policy-makers to deliver better learning outcomes.

“Political interests may vary, but there will always be one group that truly cares for education: the parents of children. By analysing research outcomes and by informing the public about them we can create political pressure to pursue reforms. Finland has played a key role in producing this information, even for this report,” says Shantayanan Devarajan, Senior Director for Development Economics at the World Bank.

The World Development Report and its results will be put to use in the work of the World Bank and many other central actors in the field. Finland has supported the publication of the report series since 2002.

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Updated 11/15/2017

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