“Education is one of the most powerful instruments for reducing poverty and inequality and lays a foundation for sustained economic growth.” ~ The World Bank
Although the importance of education for sustainable development has been widely recognized, the statistics in developing countries are still quite disappointing. Schools struggle to equip kids with practical skills and prepare them for the reality of their lives. In many cases, children are not able to comprehend a simple paragraph after five years of schooling. It is quite obvious education in the developing world needs to be redefined to have a better impact on poverty alleviation. What are the main challenges the education sector is facing in the poor regions and what can be done to improve the situation? As you can imagine, the problems and possible solutions are quite country and region specific. However, there are some common issues the countries are facing today.
High dropout rates With global enrolment in primary education increasing (source: The World Bank) over the past decade, other challenges to education have arisen. Among those, the high dropout rates in developing countries are quite alarming. In Cambodia, for example, 45% of kids leave school prior to completion. (source: UN) There is many reasons why these kids don’t complete even primary education, most of them economic. The costs of transportation to school, uniforms, books and other school-related expenditures often represent more than what the rural families in poor regions can afford. Another, less obvious, economic barrier is the opportunity cost of the kid not working while at school. There are about 215 million child labourers in today’s world (source:UN). Most of them work in agriculture helping on a family farm or selling in the market. Naturally, many of these kids have low attendance, don’t complete primary education or never even go to school in the first place.
Primary school net enrolment/attendance ratio (2000–2006):
Moving to a higher level of education Secondary education is another great challenge developing countries face. With more students completing primary school (despite the high dropout rates, the net numbers are increasing quite steadily) each year, the demand for secondary education is ever growing. Unfortunately, many of those who want to move to a higher level of education are left our of secondary school due to a lack of schools in their region. Global Education Digest 2011 warns that In sub-Saharan Africa (where the situation is worst), there are only enough places for one third of secondary school age children. Expansion of secondary education is a crucial premise to eradication of poverty. With the current focus of development aid on primary education, a strategic shift is needed to plug current funding gaps.
Schools in developing countries mostly adopt Western curriculum model with an emphasis on math, science, language, and social studies. While topics like European history or Periodic Table of the Elements might be interesting and intellectually stimulating, they have barely any relevance to to the daily lives of children in poor regions.
The children are most likely to work in a family business, on a farm, or set up their own little business in the future. The current curricula don’t develop their financial literacy or project management skills to successfully manage their future small enterprises. They need practical life skills, such as problem-solving or administrative abilities, to succeed in the environment they live in. Health education can have an enormous impact on economic stability of some regions, namely those where life expectancy is very low. Even though countries are being devastated by manageable diseases such as malaria or HIV, schooling doesn’t generally cover topics like basic health behavior of safe sex.
The notorious gender gap in education seems to widen with a higher level of education. “While there are 70 girls for every 100 boys who complete primary school in Kenya, for example, that ratio drops to 48 girls for every 100 boys for lower secondary, and just 37 girls for every 100 boys for upper secondary” states The Guardian. 60% of those without access to education are girls. See the interactive map of The Changing Gender Gap here. The inequality is significantly higher in those societies where the gender roles are reinforced by religion, tradition or law. The regions with the highest gender gap in education are Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Finance & Operations It is a well known and obvious fact that schools in the developing world are running on extremely tight budgets with no possibility to invest in technology or staff training. As a result, there is an insufficient school network namely in rural areas, making it even harder for some kids to physically get to schools. Many teachers are either not qualified for the job or do not have access to professional training. Also, high staff turnover is a common factor. Schools generally face problems such as poor governance, inefficient use of external funding and lack of organisation and leadership skills. Many schools are poorly equipped with no access to textbooks or other teaching materials.
Quality and context
High students numbers not only represent one of the many challenges for teachers in these areas, but also contribute to a generally low quality of education and poor learning outcomes of the students. Combined with the above mentioned factors such as the lack of quality teachers and equipment, the schools have little possibilities to raise quality of the lectures. As a result, many parents see schooling as a waist of time for their children and refuse to send them to schools. It is common that schools fail to reflect cultural and regional factors in their curricula. In many cases, schooling reinforces gender inequities, discrimination and racism; especially in the more traditional regions.
Educate every kid on this planet is an exceptional challenge. At the same time, it is one of the most important things we should strive for. Fortunately, the ambition to achieve universal primary education has become one of The eight Millennium Development Goals The United Nations aim to fulfill by 2015. And although it is just one part of the puzzle, it is a step in the right direction.