The UK is among largest donors to education; focus is on teacher training, accountability, and marginalized populations

The United Kingdom (UK) is the third-largest donor country to education, after Germany and the United States (US). The UK spent US$1.6 billion on education official development assistance (ODA) in 2016, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2016 marked a significant increase in education ODA – 32% higher than 2015 – and a peak in funding after several years of decline.

To get a full picture of a donor’s flows of education assistance, it is important to exclude scholarships and other costs of students from developing countries studying in donor countries; some of these costs are reportable as ODA but do not constitute transnational financial flows. If we exclude these costs, the UK is the second-largest donor country to education, after the US, because Germany spends about half of its education ODA on students from developing countries studying in Germany. Nonetheless, education is not a top priority of the UK’s development funding portfolio; according to OECD data, in 2016, it spent 9% of its total ODA on education, ranking only 11th among OECD donor countries (OECD donor country average: 8%).

For further details on methodology, see our Donor Tracker Codebook.

For further details on methodology, see our Donor Tracker Codebook.

The UK’s development strategy (‘UK aid: tackling global challenges in the national interest’), published in 2015, outlines four strategic objectives for UK development assistance. Under the objective “Tackling extreme poverty and helping the world’s most vulnerable”, education is listed as one of seven key areas that support poverty alleviation. Specifically, the UK pledges to “help at least 11 million children in the poorest countries gain a decent education and promote girls’ education”.

Within education, girls’ education is a priority for the UK. In 2012, the UK launched the ‘Girls’ Education Challenge’ (GEC), which aims to help up to a million girls access quality education. The UK has so far provided £347 million (US$469 million) through the program (as of December 2017), making it the largest-ever fund devoted entirely to girls’ education. The UK announced in April 2018 £212 million (US$286 million) for the second phase of the program, which will focus on adolescent girls in Commonwealth countries. The focus on girls’ education continues to align with the UK’s education strategy, which was updated in January 2018 and is detailed below.

Three-quarters of funding has gone to primary education, with the rest going to secondary education and basic literacy and numeracy, according to the Department for International Development’s (DFID) DevTracker.

The UK’s total education ODA declined from US$1.7 billion in 2013 to US$1.2 billion in 2015. However, funding picked up again in 2016:  education ODA grew 32% between 2015 and 2016, to reach US$1.6 billion. The spike is attributable to an increase in bilateral funding for education, driven by a number of unusually large disbursements, including US$143 million as earmarked funding to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) for the 2015 to 2018 period (reported as bilateral ODA), US$114 million to GEC, and US$110 million for education at a refugee facility in Turkey.

For further details on methodology, see our Donor Tracker Codebook.

The UK provides the majority of its education ODA as bilateral funding: 81%, or US$1.3 billion, in 2016. The largest share goes to ‘ basic education’, which accounted for 47% of UK’s bilateral education ODA in 2016 (see figure below), a sharp increase from 2015, when it represented 32% of bilateral education funding. Nearly all support for basic education funds primary education. The next biggest funding area is ‘ general education’, which largely supports efforts to strengthen partner countries’ education policy and administration but also includes teacher training and educational research (31% of the UK’s bilateral education ODA, but sharply down from 52% in 2013). Funding for secondary education (7% of bilateral education ODA) and vocational training (3%) remains relatively small but at historically high levels for the UK.

These funding priorities align with the UK’s stated emphasis on education system improvements, such as teacher training, and a strong focus on primary education. Priorities for the UK’s education funding are detailed in DFID’s January 2018 education position paper (‘DFID Education Policy: Get Children Learning’), which outlines three priorities:

  • “Invest in good teaching”: DFID supports efforts to reform training, recruitment, and how systems motivate teachers. 
  • Back system reform which delivers results in the classroom: DFID emphasizes reforms that “make education systems more accountable, effective and inclusive.” In the absence of receptive national leadership, DFID supports transparency, accountability, and better education through “alternative channels.”
  • Step up targeted support to poor and marginalised children: The UK establishes three priority groups – children with disabilities, “hard-to-reach” girls, and “children affected by crises.”

For further details on methodology, see our Donor Tracker Codebook.

The largest share of the UK’s bilateral education ODA goes to low-income countries (LICs; 34% on average between 2014 and 2016). OECD donor countries on average allocate 37% to LICs. Sub-Saharan Africa was the largest recipient region of UK education ODA (33% between 2014 and 2016). By comparison, the donor country average for education assistance directed to sub‑Saharan Africa was 29% in the same period. The UK channeled its bilateral education ODA in 2016 mostly through multilateral organizations (30%) in the form of earmarked funding for specific purposes or regions.

The UK is the largest provider of multilateral ODA to education in the world, spending US$308 million in 2016. This represents 19% of the UK’s overall education ODA. Most of this funding was channeled in the form of core contributions to the World Bank’s International Development Association (46%), and the European Union (35%). In addition, the UK is the largest donor to GPE, having contributed US$1.1 billion (as of December 2017) since 2002. The UK pledged £225 million (US$304 million) for the 2018 to 2020 period at the GPE’s replenishment conference in February 2018, an increase of approximately 50% per year over the UK’s £210 million commitment (US$283 million) for 2015 to 2018. But that pledge also came with conditions: one-third is contingent on whether GPE focuses on UK priorities, such as raising teaching standards, and, as previously, the UK’s ultimate contribution is capped at 15% of the total amount pledged by all donors for the replenishment period. With US$2.3 billion pledged at the conference, the UK commitment currently sits below a 15% cap, but advocacy organizations have raised concerns, pointing out that the final commitment depends on final contributions from other countries and could result in no increase or even less financing compared to the previous period.

The UK also supports the initiative ‘Education Cannot Wait’, a special fund launched in 2016 that aims to improve access to education services in humanitarian emergencies and crises. The UK has committed £30 million (US$43.6 million) to Education Cannot Wait, making it the largest of five founding donors (other donors: US, the EU, Norway, and the Netherlands). However, overall, education accounts for a small proportion of the UK’s humanitarian assistance: 0.21% (or US$4 million) of UK humanitarian assistance in 2016 was allocated to the education sector, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It is possible there is additional funding for humanitarian assistance not recorded by OCHA. Education may make up a greater proportion of UK humanitarian funding, particularly in light of the large disbursement in 2016 to a refugee facility in Turkey. The global average share of humanitarian assistance spent on education was 2.7% in 2016, according to OCHA. This is still significantly below the minimum 4% target established by the UN Global Education First Initiative.

DFID directs education policy development

DFID drives the formation and implementation of the UK’s development assistance for education. Specifically, the Director General of Policy and Global Programmes directs policy design and global programs managed at headquarters levels, such as the Girls’ Education Challenge. However, as with overall UK development cooperation, design and implementation of education programs in specific partner countries is decentralized and largely driven by DFID country offices. Additionally, increasing amounts of education funding are expected to be controlled by government departments outside of DFID or cross-government funds, such as the Prosperity Fund and the Conflict, Stability, and Security Fund.  This is in line with the conservative government’s priorities.