Reclaiming ‘No Child Left Behind’

This post, written by Professor Jo Boyden, Director of Young Lives, is the thirteenth in our blog series which aims to explore how the Sustainable Development Goals can be implemented to include all social and economic groups.


Despite memories of the controversial 1990s US education policy the slogan No Child Left Behind has made a come-back in the lead-up to the SDGs.  But this time it is firmly embedded within a wider holistic agenda which by its very meaning implies that the MDGs did leave certain groups out.

Young Lives is an international study of childhood poverty following the lives of 12,000 children in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam over 15 years. It was designed as a 15-year study to overlap with the time-frame of the MDGs, to provide evidence and policy advice on the most effective ways to tackle child poverty.

Our findings confirm the successes and flaws of the MDGs; there has been some reduction in child poverty during the 15 years of the MDGs but entrenched poverty remains. Macro-economic growth has raised children’s material circumstances and access to services has improved. There have been child development gains, and in some contexts for the poorest groups. But despite economic growth, levels of stunting remain high, inequality is becoming entrenched, and the poorest children continue to live in precarious conditions, often with poor quality services.

In terms of nutrition, although we can confirm that the “first 1000 days” of life are key, our study shows that some children who were malnourished during early childhood catch up in their growth later on, while others falter. This dynamism has important implications for cognitive development, learning and psychosocial well-being, all of which are associated with nutritional status and growth. It points to the importance of both preventative and remedial solutions in relation to WASH, poverty alleviation (cash transfers), and school feeding programmes.

Our findings in education confirm that the poorest children are falling behind even before they enter school. Early childhood services are a crucial pro-poor intervention but the poorest children experience the poorest services or none at all. At primary level, some school systems are more equalising than others. There is no single formula for improving school effectiveness, but teacher activity and teaching quality matter in all contexts.

We learned that there is an active mismatch between education aspirations and children’s opportunities and outcomes. The educational and occupational aspirations of children and their parents are extremely high. Decisions about remaining in school are shaped not just by the quality of school, but also by wider opportunities and demands on children, and their opportunities and choices are often highly constrained. As children grow up there is increasing disenchantment with schooling and concern about limited employment opportunities.

We also learned that gender differences begin early and widen in adolescence, with lasting effects on children’s life-chances. However, gendered decisions are not systematically biased against girls, except in India. How families make decisions reflects boys’ and girls’ perceived future roles and opportunities in adulthood, including in the labour market and expected family responsibilities. Poverty constrains successful transitions to adulthood, including for young men who lack material and social resources to marry and start families, and it is the poorest girls who are the most likely to marry and have a child before the age of 18.

So as we move towards agreement on SDGs in September, all this learning adds up to the question “how can we do if differently next time”? How can we truly leave no child behind?

These are the key challenges thrown up by our research in relation to the SDGs:

  • How to plan for human development and well-being across the life-course; in particular how to develop better policies to support the critical first 1000 days of life, and what else can be done to remedy early disadvantage and sustain those gains,
  • How to convert school enrolment into learning success, including how to address why many children are already behind before they start school, how school systems can narrow the gaps between children, and what, beyond the school, can support engagement and learning,
  • How to tackle gender inequality requires addressing the structural sources of disadvantage (such as limited labour market options) that shape decision making, just as much as influencing norms and behaviours,
  • How to provide the skills, as well as the jobs, to capitalise on the demographic dividend of a rising youth population, and
  • How to design and increase social protection measures that effectively make a difference to children’s outcomes.

We have been part of The Coalition of Partners Working to End Child Poverty and contributed to the                 policy brief on Child Poverty Indicators to measure progress for the SDGs. Included in this brief, and elsewhere, is the appeal to kick-start a data revolution for children.

The causes and consequences of child poverty can only be understood if we collect information about and with children over time. Cross-sectional studies measure the size of circumstances or problems, but lack the longitudinal perspective to gauge causes and consequences. RCTs give precise answers, but since these can only address specific questions in specific contexts, they are made most effective by being informed by multi-purpose cohort studies which enable a variety of research questions to be studied. We hope that Young Lives will continue to follow our children and young people to see if the SDGS bring better outcomes for them and their own children.

In early September we will launch our report on what has changed in the lives of the 12,000 Young Lives children over the time-frame of the MDGs, what the barriers were, and what are the new additional challenges that the SDGs need to address. This will build on our previous MDG report with Save the Children

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