Naomi Hossain

Naomi Hossain on The Politics of Education in Developing Countries: From Schooling to Learning

I recently caught up with the brilliant Naomi Hossain to discuss her latest book, edited with Sam Hickey, on educational reform in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa, and Uganda . Open Access version available here. Do listen to the full 25m chat, but here’s some transcribed highlights for the time-starved.

We wanted to look at the politics of social provision in developing countries and chose education. There is actually very little literature on the politics of education, even in the North – how money is spent, how teachers are held accountable.

The Learning Crisis: a lot of countries have spent a lot of money on getting kids into school, but at the end of their primary school a lot of kids, over half in some countries, come out and they can’t read, or do maths. Lots of kids are going to school, but they’re not really learning very much there.

Access v Quality: There’s a politics of bums on seats. Politicians really love to expand schools. It’s hard to realize it now, but if you’d said 25 years ago that by 2015 nearly all kids would be going to school in developing countries, you wouldn’t have believed them – so many kids were out of school then. And yet now, all around the world, there are school places for almost all kids. But what goes on in those classrooms is really the problem.

Politicians and policy makers and parents and teachers and trade unions and parents: everyone loves to build schools, fill the classrooms with teachers and desks and books and students. There’s lots of reasons for that – you can count them; it looks really good for politicians to be handing out books and shaking hands; teachers like it because it’s more jobs; donors like it because it’s human development, at least in theory. Everyone’s a winner.

The politics of learning are entirely different. In this book we are saying there is a clear and researchable question of the politics of the reforms that are likely to improve quality in the classroom. In particular, we are looking at teacher training /quality and accountability, both to government and to communities. In each country, we’ve traced through the politics from the top all the way down to a selection of good and bad schools in rich and poor areas.

“Some of the big failures are about under-resourced systems serving first generation learners, whose parents did not go to school, who maybe don’t know how to read or help their children with schoolwork. Don’t know what to ask the teachers. Resources matter at that level.”

What you do see, and it turns out to be really important, is that the local dynamics of accountability really matter. Whether the communities are able to put pressure on head teachers and teachers depends on local dynamics, but they are shaped from the policies from the top. For example in Ghana, decentralization has created spaces where these local coalitions can form.

Money: this is a bit controversial. My husband works for the World Bank on this and we are always having fights at home! He says resources don’t matter, and I disagree. His view is that you can get very different outcomes with the same kind of spending – how it is being spent, the governance, really matters. I will give him that!

But for me it’s very clear that overall, some of the big failures are about under-resourced systems serving first generation learners, whose parents did not go to school, who maybe don’t know how to read or help their children with schoolwork. Don’t know what to ask the teachers. Resources matter at that level. They also matter if teachers are really poorly paid, they will have to farm, do private tuition. Teachers need status and respect and innate motivation.

Teachers and teachers’ unions: being anti-union is quite a World Bank view. Unions have blocked reforms in countries like Mexico and India, but there are counter-examples. In our case studies, teachers don’t emerge as a big blocker. The evidence is that over time, systems have succeeded by building a strong professional teaching ethos, a sense of professional dignity, not beating up on teachers.

“The evidence is that over time, systems have succeeded by building a strong professional teaching ethos, a sense of professional dignity, not beating up on teachers.”

Competitive v Dominant systems: this is really the nub of the book. We went in thinking it’s easy to expand access – authoritarians and democrats have both done it for different reasons. But in the very difficult challenge of holding teachers to account, assessing what’s going on in the classrooms etc, it’s very difficult for democrats to impose things. So we expected to find Rwanda and other dominant systems doing it better.

But that’s not what we found. If Rwanda wanted to, they could probably do a lot more than in more competitive countries like Ghana. But in Ghana and Bangladesh local level coalitions have been able to drive improvements. The magic is in the relationships between communities and schools. So in the more competitive settings there is more pressure on governments to do something. Who’s going to tell the Rwandan government that they are doing things wrong? There they decided to change the language of instruction from French to English pretty much overnight, and none of the teachers spoke English, but there was no pressure on the government to correct it.

So Whats: Blueprints and best practice don’t work. Don’t enforce reforms when there’s no capacity to implement. You need best fit – reform programmes that are grounded in the local context, understand it. That means answers must come from local coalitions, and outsiders’ role is to help create the spaces for those conversations to happen, and support the systems to collect the data needed to make good decisions.

Who are the drivers of quality reforms? It is often a middle class thing, but in a lot of these countries, the middle class has exited into private education. So we need to help create the idea that learning matters. That is coming – you’re now getting second generations of going-to-school parents, who are pushing for quality. There are some policy champions emerging, eg in Cambodia. But there’s a lot of work to be done.

Private v Public: we did not enter into that debate – it’s just too heated. We focussed on public schools, that’s where by far the majority are and will and should remain.


Featured image: Matt Lucht, CC licensed.

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