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close this bookThe Challenge of Universal Primary Education - Strategies for Achieving the International Development Targets (DFID, 2001, 49 p.)
close this folder3. Experience to date
View the documentWhat have we learned?
View the documentInternational commitments pay off

What have we learned?

Commitment counts

3.1 There is no escaping the fact that the achievement of UPE and gender equality, and indeed poverty reduction more broadly, depends in large measure on the will and commitment of a country’s political leadership. Strong and consistent commitment, manifested in a willingness to allocate sufficient resources to education, and to use these resources effectively and efficiently, has been evident in all of the countries which have achieved and sustained UPE.

3.2 There are a number of key issues here. First, the nature of primary education, with the high potential returns to society, argues for a central role for government. This does not mean that the private sector and civil society have no part to play, but experience shows that only government can ensure universal, equitable and sustainable provision. Second, primary education must as far as possible be free. Experience from those countries, including Malawi and Uganda, which have moved to abolish direct charging, is that user fees had been a serious deterrent to participation. Moreover, analysis of budgetary allocations in many countries shows that fees at the basic level have been frequently imposed as an alternative to tackling the skewed distribution of public funding within the education sector, which too often favours better-off, but politically vocal, groups. Third, UPE is not just about numbers. Simply providing a bad quality education to more children risks wasting scarce resources. Unless governments are committed to improving quality, education outcomes will not be delivered, and the broader developmental impacts in terms of growth, better health and so on, will be jeopardised.

Mainstream gender equality

3.3 Achieving gender equality in school and society more broadly involves more than adding gender components to funding agency programmes, launching special initiatives, or establishing gender units in government ministries. It requires no less than a fundamental change in mindset in government, and throughout society. Real progress can only be made by mainstreaming gender through the development of all policies, strategies and institutional practices to ensure that boys and girls are accorded equal opportunity.

3.4 The experience of Guinea, cited in A Better World for All27 is instructive. Guinea managed to double the percentage of girls enrolled in school over the period 1991-98. It did so by taking action to redress discrimination, and to cater for the particular needs of girls; for example, by providing separate latrines. But the key lesson is that this was done consciously as an integral part of the government’s education policy.

27 IMF/OECD/UN/World Bank (2000), 2000 A Better World For All: Progress Towards the International Development Goals. Washington.

Inclusion requires flexibility

3.5 Even governments committed to UPE may miss out a lot of children if they focus exclusively on rolling out the existing formal system. Including all children requires a flexibility of response which recognises the diverse circumstances in which children live. It is also clear that the cost of reaching marginalised children is higher than the average, and resource-constrained governments may need to look at cost-effective and imaginative alternatives to the formal system. The use of low cost suitcase radios in Northern Uganda offers one model. There is much to learn about inclusion from experience in India with non-formal programmes, which are condensed, but use curricula and materials similar to those in the formal system. Lessons are delivered through part-time teaching, including by volunteers, at a time and place convenient to learners, using village and local community facilities. A range of experimental approaches is being piloted in other countries, but flexibility and variety in design and delivery are the key common characteristics.

Demand matters

3.6 Governments and funding agencies have often tended to think of primary education largely as a service which is supplied. Thanks to greater availability of household survey data, and to larger exercises such as the Voices of the Poor28 consultation, much more is known now about demand, and particularly what motivates parents to send their children to school, and how to keep them there.

28 World Bank (1999), Poverty Trends and Voices of the Poor. Washington: World Bank.

3.7 Poor households face significant opportunity costs if they decide to send their children to school rather than retain their labour in the home or send them to work elsewhere. For this reason, the perception of both parents and children of the quality of education on offer is crucial. Their views on what constitutes quality may often be at variance with those of government officials or funding agencies. Recent consultations undertaken in Uganda and India both showed that parents place a higher premium than expected on adequate, waterproof school buildings. Parents are also concerned about the availability of opportunities to progress on merit to secondary education or vocational training. Economic incentives are very important for poor households, and demand is very much influenced by the likelihood that children will be able to acquire marketable skills.

3.8 It has also been recognised increasingly that greater participation of parents and communities in the education of their children plays a central role in stimulating demand at a local level, in building pressure for improved quality, and in developing accountability. There is evidence that this is so even where parents are illiterate, but it is clear that literate parents are more likely to recognise the benefits of education and to demand their right to be consulted, and to hold teachers and officials accountable.

Decentralisation helps

3.9 Heavily centralised approaches to education planning and management are often ineffective. A more promising approach, which some governments are now adopting, involves central agreement on core objectives, priorities and budget levels, but with decentralisation of responsibility for the management of schools, and for the spending of at least some resources, to the local level, including by school managers. Again, a sector strategy is likely to be effective where there is strong community and parental involvement in schools and in local decision-making.

Technology - yes, but

3.10 Experience with the application of new technologies to education over the past decade has been limited and difficult to evaluate.29 The evidence is that computers in schools appear to be most effective at the higher levels of the system. Where there has been dramatic improvement, it has been with established technologies, including radio. One key issue is that new information technologies can involve significantly higher recurrent costs, which has clear implications for affordability. The greatest potential for harnessing new technologies to improve quality at the basic level exists where there is a substantial multiplier effect. There is a growing body of evidence that locally managed and maintained technologies, such as radio and electronic networking of teacher and community resource centres, can facilitate and sustain distance learning and reduce or contain the costs of teacher education.

29 Perraton, H. & Creed, C. (2000), Applying New Technologies and Cost-Effective Delivery Systems in Basic Education. Draft Thematic Review for Education for All 2000 (commissioned by DFID: London).

Education helps the fight against HIV/AIDS

3.11 HIV/AIDS has the proven potential to undermine all efforts to achieve UPE through reducing the demand for, and the supply of, education. Education, however, can play a key role in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and coping with its effects. It can promote behaviour that will reduce the risk of infection, strengthen people’s ability to cope with personal or family infection, and help to deal with grief and loss. Importantly, it can generate hope. The experience of Thailand and Uganda shows that government commitment to take action on HIV/AIDS education, including integration into the school curriculum, can be instrumental in reducing the prevalence of the disease.

Funding agencies need to change too

3.12 An assessment prepared for the World Education Forum30 judged that international assistance for education since 1990 has been limited in its impact. It has been coordinated poorly and has failed to give priority to initiatives that benefit the poor - either directly or indirectly. Many interventions were developed in isolation without consideration of the education sector as a whole or of wider poverty frameworks. There were numerous projects which could not be sustained, and which burdened governments with disparate demands and reporting requirements.

30 Bentall, C. , Peart, E. , Carr-Hill, R. , & Cox, A. (2000), Funding Agency Contributions to Education for All. Paris: UNESCO

3.13 Most funding agencies would accept this criticism, and many have already begun to move towards more coherent, government-led sector-wide approaches in education, involving more flexible funding, and greater harmonisation of financial procedures and reporting.

3.14 Although this is a recent phenomenon, many important lessons have already been learned at the country level. It is essential that funding agencies do not treat the sector as a giant project, but are prepared to engage in a long-term process of government-led change. A sector-wide approach is not about developing a rigid blueprint for the sector, but rather is an ongoing process of putting in place frameworks and mechanisms which will help to make a difference at the point of educational impact. Ensuring that there is sufficient consultation, participation and ownership at decentralised levels, and by civil society, is proving crucial. The need for funding agencies to focus on key policy issues and support joint sector monitoring, moving away from excessive agency identification with particular programmes and harmonising their own procedures, is also becoming clear, and this too needs to bean ongoing process.