My mother was an English teacher. My Father an art teacher. My sister is a modern languages teacher. One could say that the ABCs are my DNA. Yet I opted for a career in business – not education. I chose to pursue the lure of success in the private sector over service in the public sector. But with the global education system on track for what some say will be a revolution driven by demographic shifts and technological advances, what once seemed like a divergent career path may in fact be starting to converge.
Few doubt that we face an impending crisis in education – 57 million kids are out of school. Too many who are in school drop-out or remain barely literate due to poor quality schools or teaching. Those less fortunate don’t even survive to start first grade due to early childhood deaths which are all too preventable. There is paradox in education: the countries where the majority of the next generations of talent will be born – India and Nigeria for example, are the least well equipped to provide this talent due to a combination of weak state run education systems and a chronic lack of funding.
It’s hardly surprising that the UN Secretary General has put “EducationFirst” as major global priority. I attended the first anniversary events in New York last week and heard illustrious speakers ranging from Queen Rania of Jordon to fellow Scot Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Education, passionately argue the case for urgent action. We need more money. We need more schools. We need more and better teachers . Others simply call for more bandwidth and cheaper access, viewing the online education revolution as something of a panacea to the crisis. The Khan Academy Khan save the day they claim.
Who’s right? Frankly I don’t know – perhaps they’re all right. But one thing I do know is that we need to reframe the problem of education as a market opportunity in disguise. We need to view the school class as a kind of asset class. We need to finds ways of capturing the future economic value of talent and attract the necessary investment to develop it. If the brains of Wall St just a few blocks from the UN could re-package toxic mortgage debt as investment grade, think what they could do if they focused on how impact investors could turn their attention to far more valuable assets – the children of the world. In fact it’s possible that educating these kids may be the biggest untapped investment opportunity for the 21st century.
In a recent paper Accenture co-authored with The Brookings Institution and Total Impact Advisors, we claim that every dollar invested in a child at the age of three would be worth $53 when that same child entered the workplace as an economically productive asset. We make the case that relatively small investments in the early years of life can yield huge returns in later working years.
We also state that business cannot sit on its proverbial hands. As global multi-nationals purse emerging markets as a new frontier for growth, they must play a long game on engaging in securing the skills and talent to enable this growth. Private innovation and investment can deliver public goods.
So what does the 21st century landscape for education look like? What new aspirational targets should we set ourselves post 2015 when the current MDGs expire.
In my view , the myriad challenges that prevent too many kids from receiving a quality and inclusive education are systemic. Therefore the solutions must be systemic too. Ultimately we must develop a global education ecosystem that acts as a marketplace for outcomes – agnostic as to whether education solutions are offline or online, analogue or digital, public or private. It should be inclusive of the 15% of kids globally who suffer from some kind of disability and who are too often left behind. A marketplace that attracts funding and investment to approaches that work for the child and, in the fullness of time, away from those that don’t. Underpinned by regulatory and assessment framework owned and developed by national governments.
Only then can we ensure that every child achieves their full right to have a quality education funded for them, irrespective of their parents’ wealth or background.
This article first appeared on Huffington Post, and is reproduced with the permission of the author.