250 million children not learning – but has there been any progress?  

By Chris Berry, Education Head of Profession at the UK Department for International Development (DFID)

The 2013/4 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, to be launched in the United Kingdom on April 7, makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of global education progress. DFID and the UK government follow these reports closely.

One of the headlines in this year’s report is: “around 250 million children either fail to make it to grade 4 or do not reach the minimum level of learning”. This is shocking news.

Having already spent billions of dollars since 2000, not only has the global community failed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but it has also contributed to a situation where there are millions of children in school and not learning.


Where did this figure of 250 million come from?

The technical note by the EFA Global Monitoring Report team that underpins the figure uses an approach to anchoring proposed in a paper by Nadir Altinok. The note is based on a composite of children who do not complete grade 4 and results obtained in sample based learning achievement surveys such as SACMEQ and PIRLS.

niger2The latter are not conducted in all countries and in many cases there is limited historical data available. The limited historical data means that it is difficult to establish a trend since 2000. However, the GMR team has estimated that there are 17 million more children achieving the basics in sub-Saharan Africa at grade 4 than there were in 2000, mostly as a result of growing completion rates.  Of course there are no grounds for complacency – based on these calculations there are still almost 80 million children in sub-Saharan Africa who either do not reach grade 4 or who are not achieving at basic level when they do.

However we cut these figures, there is clearly still an issue about data and how the global community can get a better handle on who is learning and where progress is and is not being made.

Improving data on learning is the subject of a number of ongoing discussions at the global level, and work being undertaken by the EFA Steering Committee, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, PISA for Development and the Learning Metrics Task Force. Potential indicators of learning outcomes in reading at the primary school level for a post-2015 framework were the subject of discussion this week in Montreal. This will all help feed into the formulation of indicators and a methodology for measuring learning progress post 2015. The EFA Global Monitoring Report’s efforts to calculate the extent of the learning deficit is an important contribution to this debate

Are there other sources of publicly available global data which might shed some light on the question of progress?

The 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report makes the point that, to capture the learning of children both in and out of school, information from household surveys such as the Demographic Health Survey and the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) can provide an additional source of information. The Report analyses literacy data from household surveys and concludes that 175 million 15-24 year olds are not able to read a sentence. This is clearly an appalling situation, but if we look more closely at the DHS data for Ethiopia (where the EFA Global Monitoring Report acknowledges progress has been made), it is possible to see an emerging positive relationship between schooling and literacy rates, even at very low levels of per pupil expenditure.

Net primary attendance and literacy rates: Ethiopia

2000 DHS 2011 DHS
Net attendance ratio (primary school) Male Female Male Female
33% 28% 65% 65%
% of 15 – 19 year olds who are literate 26% 15% 44% 37%

Although much remains to be done in Ethiopia, the results appear to be impressive – especially for women whose literacy rates have more than doubled over a ten year period. It would be relatively easy to use population data to turn these into millions of children and youth reached by education and foreground a much more positive story about progress here. This is not to deny that there is a learning crisis, but to highlight a more positive story as well.

Of course, it needs to be noted that this is nothing more than an association – there is no direct causal link between schooling and later literacy in these figures. It should also be noted that literacy is a pretty basic measure of attainment – in the DHS it is the ability to read a sentence. However, the figures do suggest that much progress has been made in a very poor country with respect to both access to schooling and learning.

Could more be made of the household surveys to track progress?

The existing DHS and MICS reports contain a wealth of other information related to household behaviour and health outcomes against which literacy and schooling can be correlated. Furthermore, the information is broken down by, ethnicity and rural/urban location, and in the case of DHS by gender. Further analysis could begin to develop a clearer picture of education progress over time in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Going forward, could household surveys be carried out in more countries, collect more consistent data, and include an additional simple measure of school age literacy and numeracy to help countries to track progress on learning over time?



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