The Arab World Learning Barometer highlights the most significant education challenges facing the region in access, retention and learning. Developed by the Brookings Institution, the “barometer” shows more than 50 per cent of children, who are in school, especially boys, are not learning the most basic numeracy and literacy skills. While several countries have made marked progress on their education goals, every Arab country is affected by this. Assessing progress and identifying shortcomings is an essential part of policy, but it is only the first step. To benefit from the current spotlight on the learning crisis, would require inviting an open national and regional discourse about the causes and potential solutions.
Every Arab country, regardless of its performance and spending power, would benefit from regrouping and from collective dialogue.
In this regard, Finland could be a model. After having been near or at the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment scores since 2001, it dropped to 12th place for maths in 2013. Having already predicted the drop with their own data, the Finns are now taking swift action.
Similarly, the striking findings of the Arab World Learning Barometer have not necessarily surprised the many educators, policymakers, researchers and supporters in the Arab world who are actively involved in advancing education reforms. However, whether the findings will also help ignite a much-needed dialogue across the region remains to be seen.
There are positive signs this discussion will emerge.
In the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s national brainstorming session on health and education was warmly received and recognised as showcasing a progressive approach to mass consulting.
In this same spirit, government, academia and the private sector in the higher performing countries, such as the UAE, would be well-positioned to spearhead a regional dialogue on innovative and tangible solutions to tackling the learning challenge.
While the challenges are clearer, the solutions must now be debated. The report accompanying the barometer – Arab Youth: Missing Educational Foundations For A Productive Life? – poses questions that could prove useful starting points for further discussion within the region.
First, early childhood education has been shown to improve learning ability, school performance and productivity. It is also cost-effective: the earlier the investment, the greater the economic return. For example, it is estimated that raising the pre-primary gross enrolment rate to 25 per cent in countries such as Yemen would lead to a future stream of wage income 6.4 times higher than the per capita cost of providing access to preschool.
With a regional pre-primary gross enrolment ratio at 22 per cent in 2010, a multifaceted approach (including the private and non-profit sectors) is needed to address the gap, especially for poor children.
What type of financial incentives (for example, cash transfers and vouchers) could accelerate progress in making good quality pre-primary education more accessible and affordable? How could the region build on the experience of existing initiatives such as Agfund, the early childhood and development programme, which is already working in 11 Arab states?
Secondly, learning outcomes cannot be improved without addressing the shortage of teachers and the quality of teaching. According to Unesco, the region has the second largest share of the global teaching gap, after Sub-Saharan Africa.
The region needs to create an additional 500,000 posts and replace 1.4 million teachers who are leaving the profession, in order to achieve universal primary education by 2030.
Filling this teacher gap with qualified graduates as well as retaining existing teachers is a shared priority among countries in the region. Could regional funding help in scaling up and replicating national teacher training models such as training provided by the Queen Rania Teachers Academy in Jordan – an initiative highlighted by the most recent Education for All Global Monitoring Report? Could more cost- effective models be developed based on regional collaboration? And how could the region attract better teachers to some of the most disadvantaged classrooms such as rural areas – a practice that is paying off, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in the best performing education countries?
Thirdly, governments cannot improve the quality of education alone. The private sector in the region would be among the greatest beneficiaries of higher learning achievements, given that children and youth are their future pools of employees.
There is a need for more structured and enduring dialogue between government, education institutions and the private sector to explore how to align education with the job market and to encourage more effective corporate investments.
What mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure there are such dialogues and joint efforts? What new types of public-private partnerships could assist governments in increasing access to educational opportunities and improving learning? What could governments do to encourage the private sector to support innovative financing in education? And could entrepreneurship initiatives such as Wamda spur innovation in education by investing in education-related start-ups?
Expanding pre-primary education, scaling up teacher training and encouraging private sector innovation and investment in education are only three examples that are worth consideration.
Open and collaborative dialogue within the region is bound to identify many more opportunities including successful education initiatives that already exist in every Arab state. This discourse is essential if the regional learning crisis is to be tackled more rapidly and systematically.
Maysa Jalbout, based in Abu Dhabi, is a non-resident fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution