Every two years, the Jacobs Foundation awards the Klaus J. Jacobs Best Practice Prizes to trailblazers seeking evidence-based solutions to education’s biggest challenges. In this series, Annie Brookman-Byrne meets with the finalists of the 2022 awards. In part 1, Annie talks to Tom Vandenbosch from VVOB.

Annie Brookman-Byrne: What is the biggest challenge for education globally?

Tom Vandenbosch: In low-income countries, a staggering 90% of children are in “learning poverty,” meaning that they cannot read basic texts by the age of 10. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has not been equal – vulnerable and disadvantaged learners have been disproportionately impacted. COVID-19 has not caused, but rather deepened already existing structural inequalities in education systems everywhere.

Among global education’s biggest challenges is a severe lack of qualified, motivated, and empowered teachers to solve this massive crisis. For example, an additional 9 million trained teachers will be needed in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030 to make sure that every child has access to quality education.

It’s a bleak picture. But there is much to give us hope. If teachers are placed at the front and centre of education reforms, they can be a critical part of the solution to the crisis. If children receive the quality education they deserve, they can fulfil the roles needed by society to build a better future.

“COVID-19 has not caused, but rather deepened already existing structural inequalities in education systems everywhere.”

ABB: What is your vision for the future of education?

TV: To thrive in the world of today and tomorrow, children need a new set of skills, ranging from foundational and transferable skills to digital, entrepreneurial, and technical skills. I envision an inclusive and equitable education system powered by inspirational teachers and school leaders, where all children can develop this broad range of skills, in keeping with their talents and interests. This will provide lifelong learning opportunities for all and prepare young people for decent, green jobs and build a resilient society.

ABB: What solutions are needed?

TV: The strengthening of middle-tier professionals – such as provincial and district education officials – is critically important. When empowered, these middle-tier professionals can be true agents of education transformation.

“Strong partnerships between educational implementers and researchers are essential for achieving better results for all children.”

Working closely within and across schools, they help to improve teaching and promote professional learning communities. They also broker knowledge to drive best practices, directing local instruction while also aligning systems. There is a growing body of evidence showing the importance of the middle tier for well-functioning education systems and the need for more support at that level.

TV: National governments – in particular, ministries of education – are VVOB’s most valued and important partners. In most of the countries where we work, our partnerships go back more than a decade. We don’t just implement a project for a number of years and then leave. Sustainable education reforms at scale often take longer than a single project period. We value mutual understanding and respect, and building them takes time and diplomatic skills.

We start with existing national policies and strategies – even when they are not perfect – and collaborate with governments to strengthen education policies and translate them into action. We focus on the practical implications and implementation of these policies, especially as they relate to teachers and school leaders, in partnership with government institutions such as departments of education and teacher training colleges.

ABB: What do you hope to learn from the other Best Practice Prize finalists?

TV: The other finalists are offering us a lot of inspiration. We admire the work of Youth Impact in Botswana, especially its efforts as an evidence-based movement. We believe that strong partnerships between educational implementers and researchers are essential for achieving better results for all children, and VVOB intends to increase its investments in such partnerships.

As Ghana is a country of strategic interest to VVOB, we are also involved in discussions with Sabre Education, Right to Play, and AfriKids. Their playful innovations in early childhood and primary education, and their experience and knowledge of the Ghanaian context, are valuable as we expand our work to promote effective school leadership across the African continent.


Tom Vandenbosch is an education leader and social influencer with 20+ years of experience working in 22 countries on 4 continents. With a strong background and practical engagement in leadership and international development, he is skilled in strategy development, project development, team leadership, and scaling education innovations. Tom is currently the Global Director of Programmes at VVOB. He is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Teacher Task Force hosted by UNESCO, a member of the Technical Advisory Board of the World Bank’s Coach program, and co-chair of the Steering Committee of Educaid.be.

Twitter: @tvandenbosch, @vvobvzw

LinkedIn: Tom Vandenbosch, VVOB

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