Now the razzmatazz celebrating the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals is over, it is time to get down to business. For education (Goal 4) that means prioritizing the 250 million children who are not learning the basics, to ensure this global learning crisis is a thing of the past by 2030.
The first, and most vital, step that needs to be taken is to address disadvantage from early childhood. Evidence from around the world is clear: the children who encounter learning difficulties early on, face an uphill struggle to catch up. Learning inequalities are visible before children start school, and these inequalities often widen during the school years. This pattern is apparent across a range of sources of inequality, including poverty, gender, geographic location, disability, and ethnic and linguistic minority status, with these often interacting with one other to reinforce disadvantage.
In rural India, for example, ASER data show that by age 7 there is already a performance gap between poorer children who are first-generation learners and richer children whose parents did attend school. By age 8, gender begins to interact with socio-economic status with a widening gap between poor girls whose parents have not been to school and their male counterparts. By age 11, poor girls only have the same chance of learning as their rich counterparts had achieved three years earlier (see figure below).
In India, wealth gaps in learning start early and widen as children get older:
India’s experience is reinforced by evidence from other countries:
- In all four countries included in the Young Lives longitudinal study (Ethiopia, Peru, Vietnam, and Andhra Pradesh, India), the richest quartile makes more progress than the poorest quartile in mathematics between ages 5 and 8. In Peru, a child’s family wealth at age 1 explains 32% of the variability in children’s performance in mathematics in Grade 4.
- In East African countries, learning of children from poorer households is at least one year behind that of children of the same age from richer households.
- In South Africa, by Grade 3 the poorest 60% are three grade levels behind the wealthiest quintile, and this increases to four grade levels by Grade 9. Amongst the poorest quintile, 84% are not able to divide 24 by 3 in Grade 3, and 59% of this group are still not able to do so by Grade 9.
- In Ghana, the urban/rural disparity in the proportion of children with basic reading skills increases from a factor of two to a factor of three.
This pattern is not limited to poorer countries: in the UK, wealth gaps in cognitive development are already apparent by 22 months, which then widen throughout the primary school years.
Collecting data on learning and identifying these patterns across primary-school ages is crucial to affecting change. It requires tracking of progress of children’s ability to perform simple tasks in reading and mathematics from a young age, especially for children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds who are least likely to be learning.
Such data are also vital to hold policymakers to account for tackling disadvantage early on: in the absence of information on the early years, we will only find out once it is too late.
However, while data for tracking progress at different ages are routinely available in rich countries via longitudinal surveys, it’s rare in poor countries.
In these countries, it is important to learn from international experience, and build on what exists and strengthen it. This does not require establishing a new global architecture for early grade reading or mathematics.
For example, relatively low-cost, unintrusive approaches to large-scale data collection have been able to identify the scale of the problem, and help identify solutions. Notably citizen-led approaches in India, Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda provide information on the extent to which children from an early age are acquiring basic learning skills.
Lessons from collecting and using data on basic learning through these citizen-led assessments could be drawn upon for internationally-comparable household surveys, such as UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) and Demographic Health Surveys. UNICEF’s pilot of assessing learning in reading and mathematics will be informative in this regard.
Unless we observe progress in the early years in the near future, we can predict that, by 2030, we will still be left with a learning crisis by the end of the primary cycle (let alone by the end of the secondary cycle).
World leaders have set themselves high ambitions to be achieved by 2030. We must see this as a critical opportunity. We need to focus on the early years to ensure we will be celebrating the success of these ambitions for all children and young people. The time to act is now.
Pauline Rose is Professor of International Education and Director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.