Achieving Universal Primary Education: A game of give and take

Written by Pamela Chowdhury, Communications Manager at PEAS, on why achieving MDG2 ‘Universal Primary Education’ necessarily relies on investment in secondary education ahead of 2015.

Earlier this year, the World Bank published the 2014 World Development Indicators. The report “provides a compilation of high-quality, and internationally comparable statistics about global development and the fight against poverty”, with specific reference to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). As we creep closer to the 2015 target, careful monitoring of the international community’s progress toward meeting the MDGs becomes more significant, especially as according to the data, progress has been uneven.

When it comes to MDG 1, halving extreme poverty, sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries are trailing behind the rest of the world. Despite reports that the international community is on course to achieving this goal, in SSA up to a third of countries are seriously off track on this measure. In fact, for many SSA countries it looks unlikely that this target will be met even by 2030. A country like Zambia illustrates well how big the task at hand still is; in 2010, three quarters of its population were living below the $1.25 international poverty line – six per cent more than in 2006.

Additionally, global economic crises and the following periods of austerity have meant MDG 8 – achieving a global partnership for development – has run into obstacles. Despite the UK meeting its 0.7 per cent GDP commitment to foreign aid, other countries have not been as successful in meeting their development assistance pledges. In fact, only five countries globally have met this commitment.

Achieving Universal Primary Education – the beacon MDG?

Reaching MDG 2, achieving universal primary education, has been more positive. Primary completion rates reached nearly 90 per cent across all developing countries back in 2009, but over the last five years, progress has slowed when trying to reach the final 10 per cent. Nevertheless, the data shows that improvements within the poorest countries – particularly in SSA – have accelerated since 2000.

However, the report also makes a critical point that increasing access to primary education doesn’t necessarily prove valuable unless it is seen as stepping stone toward secondary and higher education. The logic is that as the education demands of modern economies expand, getting children through primary schools will not be enough in itself. According to UNESCO, each year £80 billion is wasted globally on education initiatives, with 130 million school children around the world unable to read a single sentence after four years’ attendance in primary school. In this respect, MDG 1 has been successful at improving access to primary education, but in the area of education quality, it has failed quite miserably. The challenge post 2015 will therefore be ensuring children stay in school, learn in quality environments and progress to higher levels.

Distance to school, physical dangers on route, fees and the failure to progress within school are all factors which stop children, especially girls, from completing their primary education. Additionally, one of the crucial investment decisions for a family to put and keep their child into primary school is whether or not there is an opportunity for them to continue onto a secondary school in their local area – if there isn’t, the drop out rates for primary school are much higher.

Completing a full cycle of education

Unfortunately, in an ironic twist, the focus the international community has given to primary education has actually resulted in problems in relation to secondary school access – something that remains a massive pan-African problem. In fact, figures indicate that in 2011, just 26 per cent of students in SSA completed their final grade of lower secondary education, compared with 70 per cent of students in the final grade of primary. This can largely be explained by the chronic shortage of secondary school across the continent, where primary school provision has been the focus. However, even where secondary schools are available, often the quality of education provided at primary levels does not prepare students adequately for secondary school. Low literacy and numeracy levels mean students are unable to access the secondary curriculum (often in English).

If countries are to grow and lift themselves out of poverty, building a more educated and skilled society is necessary. Yet, given that some children complete basic education without acquiring adequate literacy and numeracy skills, the World Bank is now advising education service providers to focus on quality, so that students are able to progress onto higher levels of learning.

Providing a quality education to our students is one of our defining principles at PEAS, so we agree with the World Bank when they recommend a drive towards quality within schools. While ensuring that the world’s most marginalised children have access to schooling is critical, if quality is sacrificed, not only are valuable funds being wasted, but the children in most need of help will continue to be failed by the global community.

It is positive to see that the next major development milestones, the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ which are set out to be achieved by 2030, aim to ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education. Education is now being reviewed holistically and this will hopefully mark a step towards children in developing countries completing a full cycle of education. But if our 2015 or 2030 education development goals are to have a meaningful impact and offer effective learning outcomes for children across the world, tangible interventions that focus on education quality must start now.


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