Enough innovation, more replication: A call to disrupt the current thinking on global education

Children attend a class at a school in Pokhara, Nepal. According to a 2015 UNESCO report, 121 million children are not in school and 250 million children cannot read, write or do basic math. Photo by: Jim Holmes / AusAID / DfAT / CC BY

While many proclaim great success in education around the world, we cannot ignore that we still face a global education crisis: According to a 2015 UNESCO report, 121 million children are not in school and 250 million children cannot read, write or do basic math.

Last week, the United Nations ratified the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, several of which concern education. Much of what is targeted for education follows from what has yet to be achieved per the Millennium Development Goals 15 years ago with the added emphasis on not only providing access at the primary and secondary levels, but ensuring life-long learning opportunities for all.

The top three education priorities per the U.N.’s Global Education First Initiative are: put every child in school, improve the quality of learning and foster global citizenship. And while there has been real progress on the global education front over the past 15 years  — UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics found that with 67 million more children receiving pre-primary education and approximately 50 million more enrolled in primary school — the reality is that much of the focus on education has been one-dimensional: getting children into schools.

Beyond just getting kids into school, we need to focus our global education efforts in the following five areas:

1. Absorptive capacity of the school facilities.
2. Availability of materials and supplies for students and teachers.
3. The quantity and quality of teachers, developing teachers and building their capacity to engage effectively.
4. Providing opportunities for life-long learning and development.
5. Increasing funding across the board.

I see today the same people issuing the same calls to action that yielded little impact over the past decade. It is at times like these, I can’t help but be reminded of Einstein’s definition of insanity — are we, the collective development community, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

Development community must think differently on all fronts

 I believe if we are to truly to achieve the aspirations set forth for education in the proposed Sustainable Development Goals and World Education Forum frameworks, we need to not only think differently but bring different mindsets, skill sets and experience sets to the table.

“Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits.”


After 15 years of dedicated work in a number of areas as a community we have a good sense of what works and replicating those best practices to achieve real and lasting impact is where our efforts should be centered. To think differently and achieve the impact we seek, we should also consider an aggressive trisector approach, where leading minds that previously have been excluded from these conversations — especially those in the private sector, including the best and brightest social entrepreneurs — are invited to the table and encouraged to share what they have learned from the innovation of the last decade.

We need to identify best practices from all three sectors and collect, distill, reimagine and replicate them to scale. We also need to approach global education as a continuum whereby the entire ecosystem is resourced and nurtured so life-long learning opportunities can take root and thrive for students and educators around the world.

Global education eco-system: Supported and sustained through tri-sector engagement and partnership

Much of the need on the global education front is disproportionately concentrated in Africa where more than half of all school children in the world are located. Educators in Africa frequently lack access to training, resources, and tools to measure and track success for themselves and their students. There are promising practices on the trisector front in Africa that have created impressive gains, though they need to be resourced and scaled.

Out of school children by region. Data by: UNESCO EFA

For example, SAP, a market leader in enterprise application software, supports social enterprises that put people on the path to successful careers in technology. To expand the company’s reach and impact, SAP uses its core assets — its people — through programs like Social Sabbatical, to build the capacity of workforce development enterprises. These short-term pro bono assignments are helping to bridge the skills gap that keeps young people around the world from capturing good  jobs. I am also encouraged by efforts that came out of this year’s Hult Prize, the largest global business student competition which serves as a social entrepreneurship accelerator to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.

This year’s focus was on providing access to childhood education in urban slums and the final six teams have developed and already begun implementing innovative solutions to support the entire education ecosystem — students, parents, educators, and communities. In addition to education for children, we need also need to think differently about how we provide learning opportunities for adults so they can find employment and sustain economic development in their communities around the globe.

From aspiration to achievement — daring to think differently on education

Imagine the impact we could have as a development community if we approached not only global education but all of the SDGs with a replicating what works accelerator model? Advancing the post-2015 Global Education agenda will take more than funding, white papers and grand proclamations. It will require new, fresh perspectives and a business mindset coming together with expertise on the ground from all sectors. Past, in-the-box thinking hasn’t come close to achieving what we had hoped. The efforts are stalled at best, and eroding precipitously on numerous fronts at worst. We need to reinvent the education ecosystem; and that can’t come solely from the same minds who have worked on the same issues for decades. Education is a human right we can no longer afford to get wrong. Future generations are counting on us.

Sustaining Development is a three-month online series exploring the post-2015 development agenda hosted by Devex in partnership with Chevron, FXB, Global Health Fellows Program II, Philips, Pfizer, UNIDO, U.N. Volunteers and the U.S. Council for International Business. We will look at the practical steps needed to move the sustainable development goals from concept to reality. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #SustainDev.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Deirdre White

    Deirdre White is a globally recognized leader in building trisector partnerships to address the world’s most pressing challenges. As CEO of PYXERA Global, she has led the transformation of the organization to one that maximizes impact through strong and strategic partnerships.