Girls attending school in Afghanistan
Girls attending school in Afghanistan © AFP

When UN members at the 2000 Millennium Summit vowed to achieve universal primary education by 2015, Syria already had full primary enrolment.

But since then, the country’s education system has been devastated by the continuing civil war. The number of children enrolled at its primary schools fell by more than a third during the 2013 school year.

Of the primary age children among the 1.2m Syrian refugees in Lebanon that year, nearly 90 per cent were not signed up for school, according to a UN report.

Conflict and mass emigration in countries such as Syria have been among many obstacles standing in the way of the Millennium Summit’s ambitious goal. As the deadline passes, the world is still well short of achieving universal primary education, an ominous sign as UN member states prepare to approve the Sustainable Development Goals, which include a still more ambitious pledge to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all”.

Nonetheless, there has been progress over the past 15 years. The UN in July announced that 91 per cent of primary age children in developing countries were enrolled in school, up from 83 per cent in 2000. In 17 countries, the ratio increased by at least 20 percentage points. In Burundi it went from 41 per cent to 94 per cent during the period. Meanwhile, the gender gap in educational opportunity has narrowed — and even reversed in southern Asia, where more girls than boys are now in education.

These increases, experts say, stem from a redoubled focus by governments and donors on making sure children go to school. But they warn that a preoccupation with enrolment rates has left those bodies paying insufficient attention to what happens in the classroom.

“Increasing enrolment is a very noble goal,” says Daniel Sifuna, a professor of education at Nairobi’s Kenyatta University. “But the focus is on the number in school, not what happens to those children when they are in school.”

In only 13 of 106 developing countries studied by Unesco do at least 97 per cent of children finish primary school, and those who do often receive a dire standard of education. Unesco estimated in 2014 that 130m children with four years of primary education still did not have basic maths and literacy skills.

Ironically, one factor dragging on education quality has been the big increase in enrolment rates, which has strained education authorities’ resources. In Afghanistan, for example, the fall of the Taliban prompted a sevenfold increase in primary school enrolment from 1999 to 2011, outstripping a fivefold rise in teacher numbers.

There have been similar problems in sub-Saharan Africa, with its fast-growing population. The decision of many African governments to abolish school tuition fees encouraged many families to sign children up to school, “but they didn’t hire enough new teachers and so you had a great expansion of class size”, says John Weidman, a professor of international development education at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I’ve seen classes in Kenya [which has had free primary education since 2003] with more than 100 students, and schools in Zambia that work on three shifts of four hours each day.”

Unesco has estimated that developing countries need to increase the number of teachers by about 450,000 a year to deal with the shortfall. But as they seek to address the problem, many have “massively recruited unqualified teachers”, the African Development Bank warned last year. Just 39 per cent of primary teachers in Guinea-Bissau are properly trained, for example.

Rampant teacher absenteeism is also a problem in many countries, a function of inadequate investment in supervision, says Gilbert Sendugwa, co-ordinator of the Africa Freedom of Information Centre in Uganda. This can produce “ghost teachers”, when corrupt local officials siphon off money claimed as salaries for non-existent staff. “If all the money being allocated was put to its intended use, half the problem would be solved,” Mr Sendugwa says.

Corruption is not the only cause of tight budgets. While widespread scrapping of fees helped persuade many parents to send their children to school, Unesco found that the compensatory grants replacing them were typically lower than the income from fees and were not normally tied to inflation.

The lack of funds has left many schools without drinking water or clean toilets, as well as a severe shortage of learning materials in countries such as Cameroon, where there is one maths textbook for every 14 students.

Meanwhile, rich-world donors have gradually reduced their spending on education since 2010, as they tightened their budgets after the global financial crisis, and some experts argue that the donors’ priorities have distracted governments away from other important matters.

“India has a history of neglecting education, so getting policymakers to focus on primary education was a big shift,” says Akshay Mangla, a professor at Harvard Business School who is researching a book on Indian education. “But the agencies chased targets such as enrolment, and the really hard work of reforming the state bureaucracy was never really on the table because of the need to hit these targets.”

Such shortcomings have prompted criticism from some quarters about the principle of universal international development goals, which many see as being too sweeping to be constructive across such a varying set of countries.

However, the initiative might be a helpful part of efforts to increase governments’ focus on education, says George Osei-Bimpeh, director of Send-Ghana, a non-governmental organisation. “So long as we have an understanding that the goals are the minimum that we should aspire to — in that sense — it has been very useful,” he says.

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