Spend more on education — but be careful what you choose, report tells DFID

Girl writing in a school in Sierra Leone. Photo by: Stephan Bachenheimer / Global Partnership for Education / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — The United Kingdom should “significantly” increase spending on global education, including through multilateral funds such as the Global Partnership for Education, a new report by parliament’s International Development Committee has recommended.

But IDC also called for careful assessment and more research before committing additional funding to private school operators, particularly Bridge International Academies — although the report’s recommendations on Bridge represented a softening of tone toward the group, some experts said.

Despite considerable progress made in recent years, an estimated 260 million children and young people are still not enrolled in school. This is exacerbated by conflict and natural disasters, increasing the number of displaced children. According to the recent World Bank education report, a further 330 million may be in school but are learning little.

Despite this increased need, current levels of funding for global education are not keeping pace. The United Nations estimates that there is a $39 billion gap in levels of education spending needed per year to reach the Sustainable Development Goals’ education targets.

The IDC inquiry, which looked into spending on education by the Department for International Development in the context of the SDGs, comes at a pivotal time for DFID, which has recently undergone a leadership change. In July, DFID revealed it would be undertaking an education policy “refresh,” something the IDC hopes its report could influence.

The report calls on DFID to maintain its position as “a global leader on education” by continuing to support major multilateral education funds including the GPE, focusing on girls, disabled children, and children in humanitarian settings, as well as investing more in pre-primary education.

“I really hope that [DFID] will take seriously our recommendation [on the GPE], both in terms of coming up with the full amount [$500 million] and announcing it early,” said Stephen Twigg, chair of the IDC. He added: “I am hopeful they will take full account of our recommendations … on the need for a larger share of funding going to early childhood education and leaving no one behind.”

In 2016, DFID spent approximately 8 percent of its budget on education — less than was allocated to health, disaster relief, government, and civil society — and in line with a clear decline in international aid spending on education since 2011.

The report also calls DFID’s funding for private education providers into question — in particular, its support for Bridge International Academies, a for-profit school chain operating in Nigeria, Liberia, Kenya, Uganda, and India, which has previously received funding from DFID and its private sector arm, the CDC.

“DFID should take further steps to satisfy itself that the model of educational provision offered by Bridge International Academies offers an effective educational return on the ODA committed to it,” the report states

These concerns were previously outlined by committee chair Twigg in April, but some education advocates noted that the report’s recommendations in relation to Bridge are now more cautious than before.

More funding for the GPE

In his April letter, Twigg called for the U.K. — already the GPE’s largest donor — to either maintain or increase its financial commitment to the partnership at the next replenishment. This message has now been strengthened, with the report asking DFID to pledge the full $500 million (381 million British pounds) that GPE has requested from the U.K. for the period between 2018 and 2020. The partnership, which was set up in 2002 as the only fund solely providing developing country governments with grants to strengthen their education systems, aims to be a $2 billion-a-year operation by 2020.

Twigg said that having additional time to look at the evidence of the GPE’s effectiveness since April, and also the strong support for the GPE shown by world leaders during September’s UN General Assembly meetings, “gave us the confidence in being a lot clearer in saying the British government should fully fund GPE at its requested amount,” he said.  

“Equally important,” said Twigg, is that the government should “do it quickly because we think the U.K. making an early pledge of the full amount could act as an incentive for other wealthy countries … so that the full replenishment is achieved,” and in time for the GPE financing conference being held in Senegal in February 2018, Twigg told Devex.

“The evidence [the IDC has] taken is that the GPE ... is worthy of that level of U.K. investment,” he added.

According to Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a Labour politician and member of the IDC, it was clear from evidence given by some education groups that the U.K. was not leveraging its financing to multilateral funds as well as it could, because it was making its own funding pledges too late. By announcing its intentions earlier, Britain could help bring in more funding for partnerships such as GPE, he explained.

What the U.K. government decides to grant to the GPE will be “pivotal” for the replenishment campaign, according to David Archer, head of education at ActionAid and former GPE board member.

“It’s overwhelmingly positive to see the committee endorse the GPE as an effective mechanism for investing in education for sustainable development … We very much hope the secretary of state will listen to the message and deliver on the requested pledge,” he said.

Archer said that other major NGOs were also rallying behind the call for the U.K. to support GPE with a significant and early pledge and would be sending a joint letter to the new secretary of state in the next couple of days.

The CEO of GPE, Alice Albright, said she welcomed the IDC’s “positive endorsement” and added that “DFID support has been instrumental in helping GPE to drive the reforms we have implemented to ensure more effective and efficient support to tens of millions of children and youth in some of the poorest countries who deserve a quality education.”
Pledges for the 2018-2020 replenishment are due to be finalized at the upcoming conference in Senegal.

The report also called for DFID to continue supporting the new International Financing Facility for Education (IFFEd), “as an additional mechanism for leveraging funding into the provision of global education.”

Greater focus on the most marginalized

Experts welcomed the report’s recommendations regarding the GPE but warned that the fund’s resources were still “very modest” given the huge education financing gap, and that they “were in danger of being spread really thinly,” according to Pauline Rose, professor of international education at Cambridge University, who gave evidence before the committee.  
Rose said she would like to see DFID use its “leverage” to influence the GPE to “focus on early childhood and early years of primary school” rather than “jumping on the secondary school bandwagon” that other donors are shifting toward. She explained that the most marginalized groups tend to reap the greatest benefits from early childhood programs but are currently the least likely to be able access to them.

DFID’s expenditure on early years education is currently low in comparison to its investment in other stages of education, accounting for just under 0.6 percent of its bilateral education budget, the report states.

A DFID spokesperson said: “DFID is increasing its focus on getting the world’s most vulnerable children, including refugees and those with disabilities, into school. We recognize the scale of the challenge, which is why we are working closely with the international community to ensure all children get the education they deserve.”

‘Controversial’ private education investments

The report notes that DFID gives “the vast majority of its support to public education initiatives,” and says this trend should continue. However, it also dedicates space to what it described as DFID’s “controversial” support for private sector schools and said that “where governments have proven unable or unwilling to provide education, sometimes support for low-fee private schools is the only option available to parents.”

The report calls for more research “into the added value from private sector schools” and recommends DFID officers review any existing evidence-based research on the efficacy of low-fee schools.

Susannah Hares, international director at U.K. education charity Ark, agreed with the recommendations but said she would like to have seen more about the need for DFID to provide funding and support to governments to better commission and regulate private education providers. That would include more funding for research into the issue, she said.

“What is clear is that, to deliver access to quality education, governments will need to manage and regulate state and non-state providers. This is the simple reality in many developing countries where private school enrollment is high and increasing rapidly,” Hares said.

A softer tone on Bridge International Academies?

While DFID has also provided funding to other low-fee school chains, including PEAS and Omega, Bridge is at the center of the controversy the IDC report refers to and is given its own section in the report. Bridge’s co-founder Shannon May gave evidence to the committee in February.

In 2014, DFID provided Bridge with £3.45 million ($4.5 million) to begin operations in Nigeria, while CDC has made direct investments worth $6 million in Bridge, in addition to indirect investments through CDC-managed investment funds.

While the report expresses concern about DFID’s support for Bridge, the IDC’s position appears to have softened since Twigg’s letter in April. That letter said “we would not recommend DFID make any further investments in Bridge until it has seen clear, independent evidence that the schools produce positive learning outcomes for pupils.” This new report is less direct, calling on DFID to be cautious when dealing with the organization.

“It is clear that Bridge is a contentious partner in achieving the aims of SDG4,” the report states. It recommends that “DFID should take further steps to satisfy itself that ... [Bridge’s model] offers an effective educational return on the ODA committed to it.”

Elsewhere, the report is more positive, stating that: “In places where resources are scarce and the quality of teaching is generally poor, elements of Bridge’s model are innovative, impressive, and scalable.” It notes that “there was certainly a demand for Bridge schools from parents who could afford to pay.”

Bridge said in a press release that it welcomed the report’s findings, which it said point to “the IDC’s recognition that the private sector has an important role to play in tackling the global education crisis,” and proof the committee “is no longer questioning whether private actors have a role, but focusing instead on the learning gains they can deliver.”

As Devex has reported, the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) project — a public-private partnership in which Bridge is one of eight education providers contracted by the Liberian government — found that while learning outcomes did improve during the first year of the project, Bridge in particular spent high amounts per pupil and that the operator turned students away to keep class sizes small. Bridge said this was in line with a government request.

Twigg explained that the change in composition of the IDC after the U.K.’s snap election in June led to a reduced focus on Bridge since none of the new members had seen the operator in action, while the previous committee had spent time in Uganda and Kenya in March visiting Bridge schools. According to the report, the committee members claimed the quality of teaching, especially at the Bridge school they visited in Uganda, was “notably poor.”

“The report has perhaps less of a focus on those issues than our letter did simply reflecting the change in the committee membership,” he said.

However, Twigg said his own position regarding funding of for-profit schools has not changed.

“My position remains the same, which is to be very very cautious, firstly regarding funding for fee paying schools in general … and secondly on Bridge in particular, that it is very important that any further support is based on evidence … that the model is sustainable,” he said.

IDC member Russell-Moyle said the wording of the report regarding Bridge had to be agreed upon unanimously by all members, some of whom have different views about for-profit schools, but that members agreed there was little evidence concerning the value for money of Bridge’s model.

In a press release sent to Devex, a Bridge spokesperson agreed that “more research should be done on how the private sector could be used to improve free, government-funded schools” such as those in Liberia, adding that the model has the potential to help children in places where there is inadequate access to school.

On the issue of high costs associated with Bridge’s activities in Liberia, the spokesperson added: “The report says that the impressive learning gains in Bridge PSL public schools came with a significant cost, but we remain on track to reach the agreed [spending] target” by 2020.

Update, Nov. 21: This article was updated to include an additional comment from Bridge International Academies provided after publication.

Read more Devex coverage on education.

About the author

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    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.