The winner of the 2024 Commonwealth Short Story Prize has been announced. Find out more.

Quality and Equity in Education – Civil Society Shaping a Commonwealth Agenda

Posted on 20/06/2015
By Joe Byrde

The opening address to the 19th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers (19CCEM) Civil Society Forum by Commonwealth Foundation director, Vijay Krishnarayan.

The Commonwealth Foundation has convened a Civil Society Forum in the wings of the 19th Commonwealth Conference of Education Ministers in the Bahamas under the heading “Education and Sustainable Development in Small States: The Quality and Equity Imperatives.” The idea being that the outputs of the Forum would then be fed into the Ministerial Meeting. 

As I considered the agenda at the Forum’s opening, I remembered Martha Farrell, the NGO leader and adult educator. Martha was known and respected around the world, for her work on adult education, women’s rights and gender equality. She had been leading a gender training workshop with the Aga Khan Foundation in Kabul last month and on the evening of 13 May the Taliban mounted an attack on the guest house she was staying at. They killed her and 13 other people.  

Martha was the Co-Director at the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, or PRIA, one of the Commonwealth Foundation’s longest standing partner organisations. She was also a long time friend to the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education,, which was represented at the Forum. She began her career as a literacy worker, then broadened into adult education on a number of social issues. Her life was dedicated to realising the transformative potential of education, something she was prepared to risk her life for and pay the ultimate price. Quality and equity in education are not given, they are not universally accepted and they require determined and relentless advocacy on the part of civil society. 

That lay at the heart of what the Commonwealth Foundation was out to enable at the Forum. As the Commonwealth’s agency for civil society, we were given a mandate by our governments to strengthen civil society organisations as they engage with the institutions that shape people’s lives. This means we place emphasis on quality dialogue. It’s now widely accepted (certainly in Commonwealth Foundation member states) that civil society should be consulted and their perspectives solicited but civil society organisations now expect more. It’s no longer enough to be invited to sit at the table, there’s now an expectation that ideas should be exchanged and perspectives shared. This doesn’t mean big conferences and endless meetings. Rather it calls for well-designed and structured dialogue that adds value to the work of all that engage. 

On the other side of the equation we can see that institutions are opening up. They’re responding to this demand for meaningful dialogue. You might think that Commonwealth processes are permeable and receptive to civil society. That is not a given and again there is a need for concerted advocacy on the part of civil society. 

The Foundation took a long look at the proposed Ministerial Agenda and understood that its most permeable part was the dedicated session on small states. We set about designing a process that would result in a real exchange with Ministers. The Government of Bahamas immediately recognised the need for a more open and dynamic Commonwealth ministerial meeting and supported our initiative. 

An important principle for the Commonwealth Foundation is that the agenda for dialogue should be driven and owned by civil society. To this end we convened a civil society Content Design Committee to develop the Forum’s programme, which was structured around two critical areas for educaton in small states. Firstly “Consolidating Basic and Secondary Education” addressing: quality (including a focus on learning outcomes and professional development); and equity (focussing for example on inclusion and gender disparities). The second critical area is “Further and Higher Education for Sustainable Development.” This affords the opportunity to look at: the application of new technologies; training for employability; and education as part of national resilience strategies.  

The two critical areas are examined from the perspective of break out groups asking specific questions but there are some common themes: What works and doesn’t work? Where are the gaps? What’s the policy response? Who else needs to be involved? How can civil society best contribute?  This last question is of particular interest to the Foundation as we make the case for civil society with our member states. We want to be able demonstrate the value that civil society adds to the pursuit of inclusive and sustainable development – not just through the delivery of services, but through strengthening accountability and contributing policy solutions.

These policy insights will be conveyed by civil society colleagues to the Ministers’ Meeting but the real value will come after we’ve left the Bahamas, as delegates take the conversation home and continue the dialogue with policy makers in their own contexts. For our part we want to see Commonwealth processes joined up and I was delighted that colleagues from Maltese civil society were able to join us so that the ideas generated here are shared at the Commonwealth People’s Forum in November. 

I feel sure that Martha would have approved of our agenda and the way that we’ve gone about it. I hope we’ll honour her memory by applying ourselves – not only over the next couple of days but in efforts to come for quality and equity in education in small states and indeed across the Commonwealth.  



Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers: Civil Society Forum

The Commonwealth Education Ministers meeting takes place every three years. Constructive engagement between governance institutions and CSOs is crucial for the formulation of education solutions and innovation.