In February 2018, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the institution responsible for administering the majority of the UK’s development assistance, released Get Children Learning, the Department’s new education policy.
The policy includes three pillars of work:
1) Investing in good teaching,
2) Support for ‘system reform which delivers results in the classroom’, and
3) Focussing on the most marginalised students.
The order of these is not accidental; in her foreword, Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt notes that DFID’s ‘top priority will be raising the bar on teaching quality,’ with the policy recognising that ‘teaching quality is the most important factor affecting learning in schools.’ This is an important and welcome focus; teachers are key to the success of any education system. They are allies in the fight for education for all.
Teachers across the globe share many of the same priorities and struggles and enjoy a unique professional solidarity across borders. These similarities suggest that the view of educators in a donor country carry weight when assessing how ‘fit for purpose’ an international development policy is. In essence, it bears asking: is the UK’s development agenda for international education, with its focus on teaching, approved by teachers domestically?
In light of this, the NUT Section of the National Education Union asked a sample selection of members for their opinions on key elements of DFID’s policy. As a major donor to education worldwide, holding DFID to account is important not just for the Union, but for students everywhere. While the NEU-NUT Section is still assessing how best to build on these responses to develop a stronger picture of UK teachers’ response to the policy, the initial findings are of interest - if unsurprising.
We found that nearly two thirds of respondents supported the prioritisation of good teaching in the policy. This suggests a high level of support among professionals for the Department’s general approach. It also suggests that English and Welsh teachers themselves believe global colleagues could, and perhaps should, be supported to deliver more effectively in the classroom.
The most notable disagreement was with DFID’s stated support for decision-makers to ‘reset professional support and incentives’, including considering ‘performance-based financial incentives’ for educators in some contexts. Only 14% of respondents were in favour of this approach. Research, such as a February 2018 study published by the IZA Institute of Labour Economics, suggests that their hesitation is not unfounded.
When asked about low-cost private schools, which DFID’s policy suggests the Department will support through public-private partnerships (noting that PPPs ‘open up access to low-cost private schools to out-of-school and marginalized children, including those with disabilities’), over 75% of respondents were either unsure or unsupportive. This suggests that British teachers would be wary, were LCPSs to be more actively pursued by DFID.
Support for LCPSs is a particularly contentious issue, and one which the Union has actively campaigned on with colleagues from Education International (EI). In May 2018, the NEU, EI, and other allies took to the steps of the AGM of edubusiness Pearson to demand an end to the company’s support for Bridge Academies, an LCPS chain operating in the Global South. The Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union Kevin Courtney has also released a video message, calling on the UK Government to stop using tax money to fund ‘illegal, for-profit operators’ such as Bridge. The Union’s strong position is informed by numerous reports (including from Kenya , Liberia, Nigeria and Uganda) and court rulings, which have shown the model to not only be ineffective, but harmful to education for all.
The overwhelming impression of DFID’s policy from the educators consulted is one of ambiguity at best, disapproval at worst. The UK remains a world leader in development, with cross-party support for the 0.7% GDP commitment to international aid spending underlining a belief in the importance of DFID itself. It is furthermore a leader in education, at home and abroad, consistently ranking at the top of lists for both the best universities and Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) spending on education. It appears that English and Welsh educators feel comfortable with quality teaching as the top priority for DFID’s education strategy moving forward, but remain unconvinced about several policy areas.
The Union will explore how to expand on this research, as well as future opportunities to input into DFID’s policies, moving forward. Crossing two key pillars of the Union’s international work, namely defending teacher and union rights and education for all, this work will be important to ensure that the UK is held to account as it seeks to deliver on the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals. Unions are built on professional solidarity, not only within, but also across, borders. How the implementation of DFID’s education policy unfolds will be important not just for the UK, or for our colleagues overseas, but also (and perhaps most importantly) for the hundreds of thousands of children DFID supports.