No one would disagree that education systems should develop every child’s personal and social skills, and should equip them with the competencies needed for adult work. Recognising this, governments aim to achieve the dual ambitions of economic growth and social stability through investment in schools.
However, with limited public appetite for higher spending, and increasing (but not always convincing) evidence on the value of private schooling, governments know that they are not simply free to “break the bank.”
What is more, a glance at what is achieved through public spending on education services cross-nationally (whether on enrolment, attainment, learning or equity), shows governments in all countries can do better. Despite education being lauded as life’s ‘great equaliser’ and the vast majority of children in the world’s wealthiest countries accessing over a decade of compulsory schooling, many children cannot take full advantage of what schools have to offer.
For a start, too many children are out of school. Moreover, the intergenerational transmission of education outcomes is generally strong, with global evidence suggesting it affects around 2 in 5 children on average (closer to 3 in 5 in Latin America), and inequality in educational outcomes are still high, and strongly linked to socio-economic backgrounds worldwide.
These failings matter. Every under-educated child represents lost personal opportunities, underutilised economic and social potential, and a litany of wasted public resources and future social costs.
Yet still, today, education policies take priority in expenditure during childhood, and in advanced welfare states and beyond, the bulk of public investment during childhood is channelled through the compulsory school system. Across the OECD for instance, of the total average public expenditure on each child – about USD 180,000 – over half is allocated to compulsory education.
This ‘education’ spending does not include other education-focused spending in broader social protection systems, including, for example, early childhood education and care, conditional cash transfers and job training for youth. This leads inevitably to the question of whether existing, and relatively expensive, education systems are worth the cost… or, more appropriately, where do we target reforms.
Are you tempted to say: ‘it could be worse if less was spent’? Well the answer could be yes, but in the complex realm of how governments try to achieve their educational goals, if we focus exclusively on ‘how much’ is spent we don’t do justice to the sum of expert knowledge on what drives better educational outcomes.
The discussion is more likely to be productive if focused on the ‘when’ and ‘how’ of government spending across the board, because this actually aligns with some key findings from child and education policy evaluations, such as:
- Optimal investment in children’s education and development suggests that public spending should decline as children age, whereas in most advanced countries spending peaks at 13 or 14 years of age.
- Evidence on children’s brain development, in particular the development of grey matter in early- and mid-childhood and on the impact of stress on adolescent brain development and behaviours, highlights critical times in the life course for targeted interventions (Even so, accessible and affordable preschool and out-of-school facilities are often lacking).
- Home environment factors (e.g. deprivation and parenting practices) drive a significant proportion of the variation in educational achievement in school (net of factors such as teacher qualification, peer effects, and school management factors), in particular via the preschool early years, yet all of these policy areas combined receive less public investment than education.
Not only could education systems be better integrated across the life course, but there are many social policies worthy of greater public investment that can support child education, particularly when they are well-integrated. The opportunity to innovate not just within, but beyond the school walls, is real, and is underway across the developed world.
Educational researchers may wish to follow health scientists once again, and explore the topic of social determinants of education as a complementary path toward meeting the ambitions of the school system. For countries wishing to improve social and economic progress, and presently banking on the school system, an integrated life course approach to child policy and education is not only desirable, but necessary.
But necessary or not, changing child investment strategies for the benefit of educational outcomes is not a simple task, and challenges to policy reform lie ahead. For instance, education, as a public service, has a budget with a lot of fixed capital investment, and employees whose livelihoods depend on it. Investment is locked in school buildings, and the professionals that reside within, and so will not be easily shifted even within the education sector, let alone across other social sector budgets, in order to achieve broader social outcomes.
In practice, integrating child policies has unique challenges due to often complex governance arrangements, fragmented tax systems and entrenched methods and routines embedded in the culture of delivery. Fortunately for advocates of improving educational outcomes, policies exist that can bridge complex administration systems to help families and societies get more from their school systems and broader social systems.
Perhaps the main message here is that when governments want to improve educational and other outcomes for children the first step is not only to spend more but to spend smarter – an implicit but clear conclusion from a recent UNICEF report on education investment and equity. Why fill a leaky bucket?
Improving education and learning is not a challenge for schools alone. It should benefit from complementarities across the social policy system that strengthen the home-school partnership, to ensure that all public spending is life-course sensitive, and that good investments on school children follow good preschool investments for the benefit of the child, the school, and society.
Dominic Richardson is Senior Education Specialist with UNICEF Innocenti. He previously worked in the Social Policy Division of OECD where he specialized in the evaluation of child and family policies.
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