“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” The message of this Chinese proverb is that if you engage with a subject, you will understand it better.

But a report from UNESCO suggests few of us are engaged enough with our education systems to understand what is happening in them.

Although largely aimed at providing guidance for governments about how to meet Sustainable Development Goal 4 (achieving inclusive and equitable quality education for all by 2030), the 2017/18 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report has valuable lessons for anyone concerned about how future generations will develop and the world they will shape.

The report says: “Governments, schools and teachers have a frontline role to play here, hand-in-hand with students themselves and parents.”

It provides examples of what has not worked well, and shows why, parents – indeed, all citizens – should care more about education.

In the report introduction, Irina Bokova, UNESCO's director-general, says: “Everyone has a role to play in improving education. This starts with citizens, supported by civil society organisations and research institutions, who point out gaps in quality, equitable education.”

Textbook lessons

One message is that it is not just what happens in class, but what is in teaching materials that needs closer attention.

The study highlights textbooks that were being prepared for use in schools in Texas that contained “strongly distorted climate change facts and presented them as a competing opinion”.

Advocacy site The Action Network says the inaccuracies included information taken directly from a climate-change sceptic group, while students were told, “Scientists disagree about what is causing climate change”.

After online petitions, the publishers voluntarily changed some of their language, UNESCO says.

But holding major educational publishers to account is difficult, the report says, because they are “truly only answerable to their shareholders”.

Ultimately, what goes into learning materials influences what tomorrow’s adults will believe. Ensuring materials are accurate is the role of government, which pays the bills from big companies. Only pressure from voters, students and teachers will make policy makers pay attention to what is in books and on websites.

Image: REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

Bokova says: “Accountability means being able to act when something is going wrong, through policy, legislation and advocacy, including through ombudspersons to protect citizens’ rights.”

Stop the blame game

Shock media headlines about failing schools and poor results are often linked to inspection reports that are meant to assist with improving performance. However, the UNESCO report says that “accountability mechanisms can be detrimental if poorly designed”.

“A blame-focused approach to accountability is associated with undesirable consequences. Rewards, such as performance-related teacher pay, have had detrimental effects: peer collaboration deteriorates, the curriculum is narrowed, teaching to the test is emphasized.”

This, in turn, can lead to a culture that prioritizes pupils likely to do well. UNESCO's Bokova says: “There is extensive evidence showing that high-stakes tests based on narrow performance measures can encourage efforts to ‘game the system’, negatively impacting on learning and disproportionately punishing the marginalized.”

The report adds that: “Trust in the education system can be built by raising teachers’ professional status, improving school leaders’ capacity and promoting collaboration through professional learning communities.”

Teachers in Finland, which performs better than most of its European peers in the international Pisa rankings of maths, science and reading results, has a system in which primary and secondary schools and teachers are not held to account through test scores. Instead, standards monitoring is based on national assessments in a sample of schools.

“High levels of trust in tertiary education professionals also reduce the need for accreditation or approval processes; the focus is on self-evaluation and professional development.”

By contrast, in Greece, severe distrust between teachers and government has paralysed any discussion of accountability for years, UNESCO says.

Truancy: time to grow up

One of the main reasons children fail in schools is that they simply do not turn up. Those mainly responsible for policing school attendance are parents or guardians.

Truancy is associated with negative consequences such as failing exams, dropping out, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse and criminal activity.

Among OECD countries in the latest Pisa results, nearly 20% of 15-year-old students reported having missed school at least once in the previous two weeks. Meanwhile, on average, one in three adolescents aged 13 to 17 in the 33 countries in the Global School-based Student Health Surveys reported having missed lessons in the past 30 days. This ranged from 20% in the Bahamas and Uruguay to over 40% in the Laos, Oman and Tokelau.

The report suggests that improving parental accountability is key to better attendance and starts with a good understanding of the school-parent relationship.

For example, in Swaziland, where adolescent truancy rates were 27% for boys and 18% for girls, students who received parental support, such as checking homework, understanding problems and supervising in general, were less likely to report having been truant in the previous 30 days than those who did not.

And in an educationally disadvantaged area of Paris, France, a programme offered parents information on how schools functioned and advice on supporting and monitoring their children’s schoolwork.

By the end of the school year, the proportion of parents actively engaged in the parents’ association was 37% for classes that participated in the programme compared to 25% for those that did not. This led to about a 25% decrease in unexcused absences in participating classes.

Remember who is ultimately accountable

The report makes plain that the ultimate responsibility for what happens in education systems lies with elected governments.

If people are unhappy with their education system, they should tell their elected representatives and, if they do not respond, then the ballot box is the ultimate sanction against politicians and parties that fail the education test.

Bokova says: “Accountability means being able to act when something is going wrong, through policy, legislation and advocacy, including through ombudspersons to protect citizens’ rights.

“We need stronger mechanisms across the board to enshrine and enforce the right to education and hold all governments [including those helping pay for schemes abroad] to account for their commitment.”