Marlborough HouseDoes the Commonwealth Secretariat need a larger professional education team? [photo: Commonwealth Secretariat]

[This is an excerpt from an article appearing in the current edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. There will be a special issue of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs published in September looking at Educational co-operation in the Commonwealth. It will reflect on Commonwealth collaboration in education on the 60th Anniversary of the Oxford Commonwealth Education Conference 1959 which established the triennial Commonwealth Conferences of Education Ministers (CCEMs), the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan (CSFP), and the Commonwealth Education Liaison Unit, the forerunner to the Commonwealth Secretariat’s education team.]

Where Next Then? A Refocused Commonwealth Education Agenda

If there is an argument for the Commonwealth to stay engaged with education, what should be the focus? Recent years have seen it unimaginatively following global trends with the last seven CCEMs [Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers] focussed effectively on EFA, the MDGs or the SDGs with limited effort made to define a distinct Commonwealth agenda or contribution within these. As Cream Wright puts it ‘the world does not need yet another grouping of countries that simply tags along with support for the education SDGs’. A contributory factor has been the lack of continuity between CCEMs and the consequent absence of a defined set of priorities around which to coalesce.

Building a Commonwealth Education Agenda

Gordon et al. highlight the Commonwealth’s potential to provide political leadership and the need for simultaneous, coordinated interventions only achievable with visible political commitment. The current international focus on climate change, migration, education for peace and global security provides a menu of issues which play to Commonwealth values and experience and could frame a ‘Commonwealth’ agenda aligned with global priorities.

Shaping Fairer Global Agendas

The imbalance between rich and poor countries in ownership of global goal setting has long been noted. The Commonwealth’s strengths as a convenor and as a representative of those without a voice in other multilateral fora leave it well placed to help disadvantaged states to share ownership of development agendas. Lewin evidences the value of the Commonwealth’s input to the SDG development process citing a number of ways in which the Commonwealth Goals and Targets for 2030 informed the format of the adopted SDGs. He suggests this type of intervention as a possible focus area or ‘new agenda’ for the Commonwealth. He argues that the Commonwealth should seek to ‘take control of the global development framework in ways that match Commonwealth conditions and national priorities’. In other words, the Commonwealth should use the essence of its identity as a platform giving equal voice to all, to advocate for a fairer global development agenda.

Bridging the Donor–Recipient Divide

Almost all of our authors refer explicitly to the changing development landscape and the increasing importance of bridging the divide between the recipient and donor, target setter and target getter and working ‘with’ not ‘for’ development beneficiaries. With a membership comprising both donors and recipients and those emerging players who are moving between the two, the Commonwealth could make this rebalancing a focus of its educational activity. Efforts to address this in the education sphere would have applicability in other areas of Commonwealth development work providing opportunities for cross-sectoral work. Commonwealth strengths in supporting knowledge exchange and south–south technical co-operation also suggest it could play a valuable role in enabling ‘target getters’ to take greater ownership of monitoring and reporting on global goals.

Convening Power and CCEMs

Convening power, capacity to marshal political leadership and to build political consensus behind issues, comes up again and again as an area of Commonwealth comparative advantage. As the second largest Commonwealth ministerial after CHOGM, CCEMs represent a significant opportunity and tool within the Commonwealth’s education armoury. In recent years, however, they appear to have lost some of their dynamism, and their potential has been underused. Significant rethinking is needed to position them as a relevant event in the government and civil society global education calendars. Desirable changes include better defined themes and preparatory briefings; greater continuity between CCEMs; clearer remits for communiqués and monitoring of performance against commitments; and revamped parallel fora better embedded in ministerial programmes.

A Revitalised Secretariat

The wider Commonwealth infrastructure in education relies on ComSec and CCEMs for leadership in identifying priorities, launching initiatives and convening interested parties for co-operative action. The strength of those original pillars is, therefore, crucial. It is clear that a professional education staff team at ComSec of only two is insufficient simultaneously to execute a programme of new work while also preparing and servicing the next triennial CCEM and the follow through, as well as managing relations with COL, ACU and the wider infrastructure. Secondments from member countries and education-specific internship schemes for young professionals could provide valuable additional support. The UK has reported its recent initiative to deploy two human rights advisors to the Commonwealth Small States team in Geneva, suggesting a precedent to follow.

Partnership Working

The Secretariat is already making moves towards remapping its approaches to partnership with both Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth players. At 20CCEM in Fiji ACU, the Commonwealth Secretariat and COL entered into a semi-formal Commonwealth Education Partnership to ensure closer coordination of effort in education to advance Commonwealth priority concerns. Additional use of similar partnerships to co-opt Commonwealth agencies and others to work on key aspects of a Commonwealth programme in education could help bridge resource gaps. Active management by education professionals is still needed to make any form of outsourcing or hub-based approach effective – it should not be seen as a replacement for in-house teams but rather a complement to them.

Education Champions

The welcome spread of democratic government and more frequent replacement of one government by another results in rapid turnover of education ministers with few surviving from one CCEM to the next. This erodes feelings of responsibility and ownership of conclusions and commitments entered into. The UK government announced in 2019 that it was appointing an ‘International Education Champion’ tasked with ‘opening up international opportunities for the UK sector, connecting the education sector to overseas opportunities, and overcoming any challenges and barriers to growth’. Similarly, in the wake of CHOGM, the UK government has set up ‘The Platform for Girls Education’ which ‘comprises 12 influential global figures who are championing the girls’ education agenda during UK’s term as Commonwealth Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth’. The Commonwealth might do well to consider adopting a similar strategy. From Julia Gillard at the GPE to Gordon Brown as UN Education Envoy, there are precedents to follow. This type of approach could support efforts to build momentum behind particular issues or causes, helping to simultaneously focus Commonwealth efforts on to particular agendas and to raise the profile of activities.

Beth Kreling is with the London School of Economics & Political Science, London & Peter R. C. Williams is with the Commonwealth Consortium for Education, London, UK.