The Challenge of ‘Quality Education’

As the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have given way to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ambition for education has risen from a desire to achieve universal free primary education (MDG 2) to the need to provide a quality education for all age groups across the world (SDG 4).

Despite a target date of 2030 for SDG 4, the latest projections suggest that universal education will not be achieved until after 2084. Whilst some commentators focus on the lack of funding and others focus on the lack of data, it seems to me that there are far more fundamental theoretical issues that need to be addressed.

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IN THE PHOTO: Rory teaching a girl in BasrochPHOTO CREDIT: Edlumino

What do we mean by ‘quality education’?

SDG 4 expresses a commitment to provide Quality Education. However, the Framework for the implementation of SDG 4, is ambiguous on what a quality education is supposed to look like. Although the word quality appears repeatedly in instructions, it almost invariably features in injunctions to achieve it, rather than in explanations of what it is supposed to mean.

A lack of prescription is understandable and even commendable. Very contrasting high performing educational systems of Nordic and Asian countries show that very different approaches can both count as constituting ‘quality’. However, the lack of prescription is in danger of becoming a lack of precision and thereby leading to confusion about what educational aid should look like.

As a mainstream teacher and head teacher for 25 years, I have been very surprised by some of what I see funded as examples of ‘quality’ educational aid. I have seen youth club activities called ‘education’ in order to be eligible for educational aid funding. I have seen ‘education’ which fails to meet the most basic requirements for special needs children. I have even seen educational aid projects judged as ‘good’ even though the ‘rate of learning’ of the pupils in those educational aid programmes would be considered unacceptably poor in many mainstream schools.

One of the root causes of this problem is that there is a lack of clarity about what constitutes ‘quality’ education. In a world where there is a growing number of ways of making comparisons between education systems (such as the OECD Pisa system) this is an entirely avoidable problem.

One of the root causes of this problem is that there is a lack of clarity about what constitutes ‘quality’ education.

If clarity about ‘quality’ were properly prioritised, then it should be relatively straightforward to create an international ‘kitemark’ to ensure that providers and recipients meet minimum standards. Without this, there is a very serious risk that limited donor aid is not being employed in the most effective way. It is impossible to monitor and evaluate a commitment to ‘quality’ education when there is no shared understanding of what ‘quality’ means.

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In the Photo: Mural Outside a School in Kurdistan. Photo Credit: Edlumino

Are we really deploying the most effective tactics to achieve universal education?

Tacticians broadly distinguish between convergent tactics (doing x in order to achieve x) and divergent tactics (doing x in order to achieve y). Building schools in order to get more children into education is an instance of convergent tactics to achieve a strategic goal of universal education. Passing a law to make child labour unlawful is a divergent tactic to achieve the same strategic end.

At the moment, educational aid tactics for achieving SDG 4 are generally convergent. Outcomes are largely about incremental growth and scaling up current practices. Primary education is extended by opening more and more primary schools.

However, with the disappointing lack of progress towards achieving SDG 4, perhaps the time has come to consider more divergent tactics.

Following the 2007 McKinsey report ‘How the world’s best performing schools come out on top it is now generally recognised that an educational system cannot have a higher output in quality than the quality of its teachers. Therefore, one of the key issues for extending ‘quality education’ is to find a way of more rapidly increasing the supply of quality teachers.

Children who only have a primary school education will not typically be available to the workforce of a developing country for at least 10 years. In most cases, children are left behind without a secondary education to go onto, meaning that there will be considerable educational regression and few will be able to progress into professional roles such as teachers.

One of the key issues for extending ‘quality education’ is to find a way of more rapidly increasing the supply of quality teachers.

Focusing on educating secondary age pupils means that those children will be available to improve the economic and educational impact of a developing country in around 5 years. Compared to primary educational aid, focusing on secondary educational aid halves the time taken for educational aid to have a positive economic impact. This means that educating secondary pupils can speed up the development of professionals within an emerging economy, and lead to a higher numbers of quality teachers that can enter the workforce.

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 IN THE PHOTO: Rory in school in Liniere. PHOTO CREDIT: Edlumino

The most effective tactic for extending (long-term) primary education could conceivably be the counter-intuitive (short-term) tactic of focusing on secondary education. Of course, this is not an ‘ideal’ way to run an educational system and it would not work in the long run. However, in the short term, it might just kick-start a faster rate of improvement towards being able to implement that longer-term ideal model.

Catch-up programmes for children who have missed earlier learning have been successfully implemented and shown positive results in developed countries with failing schools. This means that it is possible for secondary age pupils to make up key elements of a missed primary education. The greater intellectual maturity of teenage pupils means that five years of secondary age education could also conceivably take the children to higher levels than five years of primary education, followed by no education. I have seen this outcome myself in educating refugee girls. Some 15-year-olds had never previously had access to schools, yet they still demonstrated an ability to work successfully and catch up at a greater pace.

The greater intellectual maturity of teenage pupils means that five years of secondary age education could also conceivably take the children to higher levels than five years of primary education, followed by no education.

However, I am asking the question whether this convergent focus makes the best tactical sense in the short term; or whether the time has come to try more divergent tactics?

Is the focus on ‘quantity’ undermining the ability to deliver ‘quality’ education?

At the moment the overwhelming majority of planning, implementation and evaluation of educational aid still revolves around the focus on quantity. Appeals are launched in terms of how many millions of children do not have access to education. Success is reported in terms of the quantities of children who have been provided with education, or how many teachers have attended training events.  Despite the fact that SDG 4 is supposed to be about ‘quality education’ the overwhelming focus of the educational aid industry is still on quantity.

This would be understandable if a focus on quantity delivered quality. But, on the contrary, research projects on school improvement tend to show that a focus on increasing quantitative outcomes (such as exam results) actually undermines the long-term development of quality within a school.

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 IN THE PHOTO: Rory teaching a boy in BasrochPHOTO CREDIT: Edlumino

So, if what we know from research-driven school improvement tells us that a focus on quantity does not deliver quality, why is the educational aid industry still so heavily focused on quantity?

It may well be because the millennium 15-year focus on MDG 2 was not so explicitly focused on quality. Perhaps there just hasn’t (yet) been a shift in the educational aid industry to consider the different approaches needed for a sharper focus on quality, which is embedded in SDG 4’s targets?

A more explicitly ‘quality’ focused approach would be to reduce the quantities of interventions in order to use resources that improve quality. Rather than opening 20 new schools, for example, it would make more sense to open 15 schools and allocate the remainder of resources to ensuring that those 15 schools have higher quality provision.

In the immediate short term this slows down the rate at which children are brought into education, but it creates stronger, higher quality schools. Those schools can then become the backbone of a truly sustainable local educational system, which is able to train teachers and support regional expansion without needing external support. Over time, this allows a greater numbers of children to become engaged in education of a higher quality than it would be if we simply focused on quantity.  

Are the expectations of educational aid donors just too low?

It is universally accepted that high expectations lead to higher quality classroom outcomes. So, by extension, one of the most fundamental aspects of improving the quality of educational aid should be higher expectations amongst aid donors.

Yet this just does not seem to be taking place. All of the wealthy educational aid donor countries have a clear vision of what ‘quality’ looks like in their own educational systems, yet they seem remarkably content to fund educational provision which they would dismiss as inadequate or unacceptable for their own children.

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 IN THE PHOTO: Rory teaching maths. PHOTO CREDIT: Edlumino

One simple example of this approach can be seen when it comes to classroom sizes. Educational aid donor nations have different approaches to classroom sizes, but broadly speaking pupils will receive a minimum of about 1.5 square metres per pupil. This means that a classroom for 30 pupils will usually be (at least) around 50 square metres.

However, educational aid classrooms are usually very much smaller, often around 35 square metres with desk space for about 30 children. Often, there will be many more children crammed into a classroom and sometimes I have seen more than 50 children in these small classrooms. But it remains the case that conceptually, and theoretically, the classroom is calibrated for around 30 children.  

All of the wealthy educational aid donor countries have a clear vision of what ‘quality’ looks like in their own educational systems, yet they seem remarkably content to fund educational provision which they would dismiss as inadequate or unacceptable for their own children.

So, there seem to be two fundamentally different standards at work for education. There is the ‘large’ classroom standard enforced by educational aid donors as a minimum acceptable standard for their own children. Then there is a ‘small’ classroom size which is deemed good enough for recipients of educational aid.

The difference in size is extremely important because the physical constraints impact upon pedagogy. When the classroom is very small, it is difficult to re-arrange desks for group work or class discussions. It is difficult for a teacher to circulate around a room looking at individual work and giving individual feedback to special needs pupils. When there is only enough room for the teacher to stand at the front and write on the board, this canonises education so that it consists of pupils copying off a board.

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 IN THE PHOTO: School in Liniere. PHOTO CREDIT: Edlumino

This ‘copy off the board’ model of education would be considered unacceptably poor in the educational aid donor nations, as teachers are expected to deploy a range of classroom strategies in order to build creativity and pupil engagement. Yet ‘copying off the board’ is effectively being enforced as the norm for educational aid recipients because the educational aid classrooms are so small that it becomes difficult to teach in any other way.

This is not fair. It may have once been the case that some educational aid recipient nations preferred and prioritised ‘copy off the board’ pedagogy. But there are now groups of local teachers in who want to read international research and who want to try different approaches in their classrooms. However, they struggle to implement the good practice which they are studying, because the dimensions of their classrooms are just too restrictive.

This issue of classroom dimensions is quite blatantly an issue of double standards and a case of educational aid donors having much lower expectations for the teachers and children in recipient nations. What it leads to is an outcome where wealthy western children are given privileged access to a range of teaching styles in their own larger classrooms, which are denied to poorer children receiving educational aid, because their classrooms are built to smaller specifications.

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 IN THE PHOTO: Rory at school in Liniere. PHOTO CREDIT: Charles Habib for Edlumino


SDG 4 represents a challenge, but the challenge is much greater than is generally appreciated. There is most definitely a need for greater funding, and a clear visible crisis consisting of millions of children who cannot get access to education. But there is also a much less recognised set of underlying problems of understanding and comprehension for the educational aid industry. Those are the less visible problems and are just as significant as the highly visible financial ones.

Unless the educational aid industry can raise its expectations for recipients, unless it can sharpen its understanding of what ‘quality education’ means and deploy the most effective tactics to achieve it, then there is a very serious risk that no amount of resources will ever enable SDG 4 to be achieved.

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About the Author /

Rory Fox is an educationalist who has been in educational leadership for over 25 years. During his career he has worked extensively in teacher training, curriculum design, opening schools and improving failing ones. He has led education initiatives in prison, private and state schools, most recently as an executive headteacher. Rory is CEO of edu-charity Edlumino Education Aid, currently working in refugee camps across Europe to provide qualified teachers for refugee children. Edlumino specialises in the education of children and educational leaders and managers to help other NGO’s develop the educational aspects of services which they are providing to children.


  • The key message in this article is refreshingly to the point. And I hope donors take note. There is truly a double standard in their approach, they fund a development path for education in developing countries that they would not countenance at home.

    Further, one can only support the second point made in this article, that the challenge of education is overly simplified. Clearly, it is not enough to “start at the beginning” and focus on improving primary education. The education system should be viewed as a whole, and the question of its sustainability should be addressed.

    Education aid should not last forever, it should aim at making itself redundant as soon as possible. That means training teachers in the countries receiving the aid, as forcefully argued here.

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