Young Lives, a research initiative at the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development (ODID), released a report in late November titled “Delivering on every child’s rights to basic skills”. The Young Lives projects focus on a wide variety of themes with application to the Sustainable Development Goals, such as poverty and inequality, health and nutrition, child protection, and the relationship between education, skills, and work in the context of children’s lives. The recent report has a lot of relevance to the worldwide project of sustainable development and to the principle of leaving no one behind in progress, as the equality of access to quality education is a critical component of society’s capacity to furnish its young with the skills necessary to realize their potential to gain personal success, social agency, and the means to leave a legacy of better prospects for future generations.
The report signals that the most important challenge that must be met in the progression of this century is the building of educational systems’ capacity worldwide to provide children with a basic level of skills in a manner that fulfills an equality of standards. The report acknowledges that learning outcomes do differ by individual, but the inequality of access to the educational forum to acquire a basic level of skills is an issue that can and must be addressed through the conscious policy and organizational efforts to improve systems of education. The report, in highlighting the need for all sectors of society to push for necessary improvements, cites the Education Commission’s reference to the unequal access to acquisition of basic skills as the “civil rights struggle of our generation”.
The Young Lives research project was large in scope, monitoring the challenges and progress of 12,000 students across 80 countries for several years. This work provides an important contribution to the accumulation of information about effective aspects and shortcomings of various education systems in order to inform future practices. Such research must continue to inform the dialogue surrounding this issue, especially as recent statistics suggest that six out of ten children and adolescents lack basic proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. Numeracy is an important skill used in many essential aspects of daily life and in many professional fields. Literacy especially is one of the most important foundational skills to lifelong education, as it acts not only as a tool useful in many employment arenas and in many forms of communication, but also as a foundational aspect for the learning achieved through the ability to interpret written text throughout one’s lifetime.
The importance of prioritizing the establishment of basic levels of skill in these subjects in early years of schooling is paramount. School systems must improve their organizational structures and curricula to support students in obtaining a minimum level of skill, as one of the major barriers to achieving quality education is the fact that curricula often outpace children’s learning, and many children are pushed out of the education system when they cannot keep up with new material because the systems failed to ensure they acquired the foundational knowledge to build upon. Those who continue schooling without the minimum level of skills are also disadvantaged, and often achieve lower levels of learning throughout their education.
There has been an expansion in the reach of school systems, but the quality is markedly different when social and economic factors are studied, with more prosperous communities employing more qualified teachers, ensuring that students are instructed in their native language, and providing more materials and teaching aids. Though the aspect of inequality of access in impoverished communities is a critical one to address, the most widespread and essential challenge to undertake is to improve the matching of students with the correct curriculum level to ensure that education achieves its most basic purpose of providing the basic foundational skills for lifelong learning, whether in later school years or in personal and professional endeavors.
This is an issue affecting children across social and economic boundaries, and tackling it is key to ensuring no child is left behind and gains the building blocks for further knowledge and the development more complex skills. There is a transitional tension between the expansion of school systems in conditions of scarce resources in many countries. An increase in the scope of education towards “mass learning” is an important aspect of achieving worldwide equality of access, but policymakers and educators must not allow the agenda to expand the reach of education systems to a larger quantity of children to compromise the ability and resource capacity of schools to provide quality teaching that addresses children’s specific learning needs and constructs curricula that take account of students’ learning pace to ensure that they acquire a basic level of skills.