Education: quality counts too

Goal: Enrolment of all children in primary school by 2015 

Providing universal primary education in developing countries remains a great challenge – and a great opportunity. Educational success would give millions more the skills to rise out of poverty. But failure would fuel an educational – and social – crisis in the decade ahead.

In developing countries, one child in three does not complete five years of schooling. Improving on that figure is only part of the challenge. Enrolment rates are in fact up in most regions, but the quality of education has been suffering. Education for all is all very well, but good quality education for all is another story. At the World Education Forum in April 2000, the international community agreed that providing good education must be at the top of the agenda.

This means investing in training teachers, improving facilities, providing materials, and making sure what is being taught is relevant. It means increasing family and community participation and eliminating the gender bias that is harming girls' education.

Bangladesh's education minister, Abu Sharaf Hifzul Kader Sadique, acknowledged at the E9 (nine high-population countries) in February 2000, that in his country’s “rush for numbers, quality missed out”. Bangladesh has since made great strides in literacy, but difficulties in quality remain. China admits to the same problem: at the same E9 meeting, Lu Fuyuan, deputy education minister, said that the “overall quality of school teachers leaves much to be desired”; he was citing the difficulty in reaching remote areas. Bangladesh and China are not alone. Brazil, Malawi, and Mexico, along with most countries that have made major strides towards education for all, are now turning their attention to improving quality. It is a job which entails several steps.

Teachers have to be trained. Having achieved 96% primary school enrolment, Brazil is now concentrating its efforts on improving the quality of instruction, as almost half of the country's pupils are one year behind and repeat one or more classes. A recent nationwide study showed that teachers with university-level education helped their pupils make much faster progress than teachers without it. But today only about half of the 1.5 million teachers in state primary schools in Brazil have a higher-education qualification. Today, important efforts to boost in-service training for teachers are being made by the Brazilian authorities.

Of course, once teachers are trained, they have to be retained. Paradoxically, as some countries are upgrading teacher training, others are watching as qualified, talented teachers desert the profession for better-paid work in computers or tourism. Teaching suffers from a brain drain provoked by low status and even lower salaries. There is a need to restore value, both morally and materially, to the function of teachers and educators and give them back status, recognition and dignity within their society. Financial constraints and political sensitivities have made this difficult in the past, but change is now required. The trouble is that in many developing countries, teachers' salaries already amount to as much as 95% of public education budgets; any improvement in teachers' employment conditions will clearly require increased funding.

Keeping up to date 

Improving facilities and materials is also important. A good school environment can have a positive impact on attendance and success rates. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. A UNESCO/UNICEF study in fourteen least developed countries in Asia and Africa found that at least 35% of schools (often much more than that) needed repairing or rebuilding. Many had no furniture or running water. Most developing countries face serious problems in producing and distributing appropriate textbooks and teaching materials, from mathematical instruments to maps. Again it is a question of political will and increased funding. In the case of learning materials sound national strategies are often lacking. Countries such as Namibia, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana, where African publishing is developing most rapidly, are exemplary because they have managed to establish a close co-operation between book industries, governments and national publishers’ associations.

Another problem is that education systems in many countries are becoming obsolete: what is being taught in school is simply not always relevant. When education programmes exist out of context, without a bearing on the surrounding job market, or on the local culture, sooner or later they lose their “clients”. Proper teacher training would help to resolve this, as would the establishment of relevant curricula, appropriate textbooks, and so on.

Finally, many external factors influence the quality of education, not least the pupils' social status and state of health. After all, quality education is not only about having good quality teachers and materials. It is also about the quality of learners. Children need to be healthy, well-nourished and ready to learn.

A priviliged pursuit 

Today, 113 million children, most of them girls, are excluded from education. Some 110 million of them live in developing countries. An excluded child might be a street child, or a boy from a South American hill tribe recruited into a militia, or even a girl who is a sex worker in an Asian slum. But these are extreme cases. There may be more mundane reasons for exclusion, though the effect is just as pernicious, such as an African child – usually a girl – who is kept at home to tend crops, fetch water or look after younger siblings. Or simply that families cannot afford school fees.

A tangled web of socio-cultural, economic and physical factors excludes children from education. Schools exclude when they do not welcome families as partners; the education bureaucracy excludes by failing to back their teachers; and governments exclude by failing to pursue pro-child policies. As governments have been slow to embrace non-formal education, non-governmental organisations provide most of the schooling to children in need. But for real advances to be made, more effective partnerships between non-governmental organisations and governments must be built.

Nor do the demographics leave much room for complacency. Declining birth rates may cause the world’s school-age population to increase by only 9 million in the next 15 years, but there are large regional differences. In East Asia the school-age population will decline by 22 million, thanks to reduced fertility rates. But in sub-Saharan Africa it will rise by 34 million. Added to the 46 million not in school in 1998, that means building schools, training teachers and providing textbooks for an extra 80 million children in the next 15 years. South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa face a similar challenge.

These prospects make the need to improve the efficiency of education systems all the more urgent. Today, in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa only around two in three pupils reach grade 5. In terms of measuring efficiency, up to a third of school systems resources are spent on repeaters and dropouts. In fact, a quarter of the 96 million pupils who entered school for the first time in 1995 are likely to abandon their schooling before grade 5. Schools have to be more sensitive to the needs of many ordinary and low-achieving pupils if they want to be truly open and accessible to all.

For larger graphs, please click here


• The World Declaration on Education for All, 1990.

• UNESCO, Final report of the World Education Forum. (Dakar, Senegal, 26-28 April 2000), 2000.

©OECD Observer No 223, October 2000

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