30 March 2016

The right to education is a right to learning

Kishore Singh, the "UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education” is totally freaking out that apparently the government of Liberia is planning to outsource all of its primary schooling to Bridge International Academies.

“education is an essential public service and instead of supporting business in education, governments should increase the money they spend on public educational services to make them better.”

Kishore is of course commiting Mike Munger’s unicorn fallacy. The public primary school system in Liberia was frankly pretty rubbish, even before the Ebola crisis hit, and there is no evidence that just spending more money is likely to improve things.

RTI did a baseline for their early grade reading intervention project in 2008. They found that children in Grade 3 in Liberia could read 28 words per minute. To put this in perspective, in the US children are considered to be at risk if they can read fewer than 70 words per minute at the end of Grade 2. Clearly there is nothing inherently wrong with Liberian children, the schools just aren’t working (I should also be clear that I’m not beating on Liberian teachers either, it is the system that is not functioning - don’t hate the player, hate the game). The children attending free public primary schools in Liberia might be exercising a right to schooling, but they certainly aren’t exercising a right to learning or any meaningful definition of the word education.

It should be in this context that we note that AllAfrica reports that "The deal will see the Government of Liberia paying over $65 million over a five-year period.” That is $13 million per year then, to cover a full population aged 5-14 of 920,000, or roughly $14 per student per year. That’s an absolute bargain. That’s an absolute bargain, even if Bridge are only actually covering a small fraction of that full population (Normally Liberia spends around 2.5% of GDP on education, which is around $47.5 million).

Clearly the jury is still officially out on whether independent estimates will show better learning outcomes from Bridge schools, but there is a hell of a lot of research which backs up elements of their theory of change, from how teacher qualifications and experience matter so much less than the type of contract a teacher is on, to the importance of feedback for teachers on student learning.

Meanwhile over at Kishore Singh’s website, he highlights 8 key priorities, none of which include the global learning crisis, in which there are 250 million children without basic skills, the majority of whom have already sat through 4 years of school. I’m frankly baffled by the inordinate amount of hostility shown by campaigners to social entrepreneurs who are still educating absolutely tiny proportions of the global poor, and how little attention is paid to the totally failing free public systems of schooling that millions of children are enduring.