Universal Primary Education

A Moving Target

Millennium Development Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education. Target: Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.

In 2000, the international community agreed to focus its efforts for the next 15 years on the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs address issues of health, equity, global partnership, the environment, and poverty. One of the eight specific goals is to achieve universal primary education (UPE) by 2015. Currently, 55 countries are on target to meet this goal, and 38 are close to being on target. However, 19 countries remain far behind target, and are not on track to achieve UPE.

How Severe is the Problem?

Without attending primary school, most children will not learn to read, write, or perform simple arithmetic. Lacking these crucial skills, it is difficult for them to obtain paid employment later on. Consequently, no country has ever experienced large-scale economic growth without first achieving near universal primary school enrollment.

The total number of children out of school fell dramatically between 1999 and 2009. However, in the developing world there remain at least 67 million children of primary school age who do not attend school. More than half of them (53 percent) are girls. Approximately half of out-of-school children, or 32 million, live in sub-Saharan Africa, while a quarter, or 16 million, live in Southern Asia.

Children are kept out of school for a variety of reasons. They may not have a school within walking distance of their village; school fees may be too expensive for their parents to afford; or they may be needed at home to do chores.

Often, when parents cannot afford to send all of their children to school, the girls are kept home to help with cooking, cleaning, and the care of younger siblings. Lack of primary education for girls is highly predictive of early marriage, high fertility, and a life of poverty and dependence on men.

Out-of-school children in Accra, Ghana. Photo: Marian Starkey
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Intermediate Successes

Although the number of school-aged children has grown in the last decade, the number of out-of-school youth has decreased from 106 million in 1999 to 67 million in 2009. At the same time, the portion of children in developing countries who complete primary education has risen, from 82 percent in 2000 to over 88 percent today. In all but two regions, primary school enrollment is now at least 90 percent. Enrollment in sub-Saharan Africa stands at just 76 percent, but improved by 18 percentage points between 1999 and 2009.

In Southern Asia, the proportion of girls enrolled in primary school relative to boys jumped from 83 to 95 girls for every 100 boys between 1999 and 2009. In Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, girls attending secondary school now outnumber boys. In Latin America and the Caribbean, girls have outnumbered boys in secondary school since at least 1991.

In Ghana, enrollment has increased so drastically that many classrooms hold 100 or more students and there is a shortage of teachers, furniture, and sanitation facilities. UNICEF estimates that each year a deficit of 1,048 classrooms will be added to the current shortage in Ghana.

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School children in La Blanca, Guatemala. This one-room school teaches 72 students of all ages thesame material with one teacher. Photo: Marian Starkey

Challenges to Achieving Universal Primary Education

Meeting the goal of UPE would be challenging even if population size remained constant. However, the rapid growth of the student-aged population in many countries has outpaced the progress that has been made. Western Asia and sub- Saharan Africa lag behind other regions at 76 percent and 88 percent enrollment, respectively. Unsurprisingly, these are the two regions with the highest population growth rates.

To maintain education systems at their current capacity, 8.1 million teachers will need to be recruited globally by 2015 (from 2009). Expanding these systems to achieve UPE will require an additional 2.2 million teachers. Identifying, training, and paying that many professionals will require vast resources that most developing countries do not have.

Facts & Figures
  • Assuming class sizes of 40, an extra 2 million teachers per year are required in the developing world just to keep enrollment rates steady.
  • More than a quarter of the world population is under the age of 15 [and still has their childbearing years ahead of them].
  • In sub-Sahara Africa, average class sizes in public primary schools range from 26 students in Cape Verde to 67 in Chad. Out of ten countries providing data, four reported an average of 50 or more students per class.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, the rate of primary school completion is only 67 percent. However, in many countries in the region, the rate is below 50 percent.
  • At the World Education Forum, held in Dakar, Senegal in 2000, 164 governments pledged to achieve Education for All (EFA). To do this, sub-Saharan Africa will have to spend 50 percent more on teacher salaries, relative to 2007 levels. The gap in the number of teachers needed for achieving EFA is 1.2 million in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • 37 countries must increase the number of teachers in classrooms every year by 3–18 percent in order to meet the goal of UPE. Assuming 5 percent attrition (for retirement etc.), the need increases to 8–23 percent more new teachers each year.

Wolfgang Lutz, an Austrian demographer who focuses his research on human capital, said in a presentation to other demographers, “High fertility is an obstacle to increasing school enrollment. A rapidly increasing school-age population makes it more difficult to increase or even maintain school enrollment rates— lower average schooling in turn leads to higher fertility.” He continued, “Efforts to increase school enrollment rates are greatly helped by reducing the growth in the school age population.”

In essence, stabilizing the population of children wishing to enter the education system each year would allow governments a chance to “catch up” with the children who are already left out. The Department for International Development in the United Kingdom summarizes, “Strategies to give access to reproductive health care tend to stabilize population growth, which has positive implications for sustaining education, and for individual families’ ability to feed and educate their children.”

Looking Ahead

David E. Bloom, an economist and demographer at Harvard University, warns that “even if education continues to expand at the pace that it did between 1990 and the early part of this century, our estimates indicate that 114 million primary school age children will not be enrolled in school by 2015, about one in six.”

The global community has made massive strides in getting kids into schools. But as long as the number of 5–9-yearolds continues growing at 3 percent a year in some countries, universal enrollment will remain out of reach. Population growth places insurmountable pressure on regional and national governments to provide infrastructure—including education— for its citizens.

Millions of women around the world want to have smaller families. Giving them the means to do so will help improve quality of life at the individual level and also at the national level. An educated population can change the trajectory of a country in a single generation.

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