When Going to School Does Not Mean Learning

The second target of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed upon in 2000 by world leaders and set to expire next year, is to "ensure that by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling."

So, how far are we now?

According to the United Nations' own assessment "from 2000 to 2011, the enrollment rate grew from 83 per cent to 90 per cent, and the number of out-of-school children dropped by almost half from 102 million in 2000 to 57 million in 2011."


Yes, the numbers are impressive. But, unfortunately, education is not.

A new report by UNESCO sheds light to what it calls a "global learning crisis." One in four young people, the report reveals, are unable to read a sentence and 250 million children who go to school do not actually learn the basics in reading and mathematics, even after half of them spent four years of schooling.

This pandemic of poor quality education, the report estimates, has cost governments 129 billion dollars. In other words, a huge bulk of investment in "universal primary education" has not been productive and might indeed have been counterproductive, costing billions of dollars of investment with little return. "Access is not the only crisis - poor quality is holding back learning even for those who make it to school," reads the foreword of the report. Such shortfalls put the whole success story of "access to education" in jeopardy. Some countries might as well just start at square one.

Most people agree that education is perhaps the most important ingredient of economic development. In today's knowledge economies, human capital is conceivably the highest form of capital. So Investing in this capital -- through education -- is part of what economic development is all about. But education is neither the enrollment rate nor the number of students in classes. Rather, it is about forming individuals and helping them to acquire skills which enable them to better contribute to society. Skills that create new industries, add value to resources, spurt growth and expand the economic pie. Without these skills, education is kind of futile.

Since 2000, poor countries have worked hard to meet the MDGs targets and many countries declared a universal access to primary education to all school-age children. As the UN assessment reveals, there are some "impressive numbers" to show for it, such as the increasing number of children attending school. But those impressive "numbers" are solely on quantity, while little to nothing has been done to the quality of education that children receive.

Furthermore, primary school is not enough to prepare students for the future and make them economic innovators that developing countries so desperately need. The daunting challenges ahead is to make sure that more children are able to learn in primary school and continue into high school, vocational training or college.

At the heart of this crisis at the primary-level education, are failures in two areas that make education works, worthwhile and useful: physical classrooms and teachers.

First, the new influx of students into schools was not preceded by a commensurate addition of new classrooms. Nor with commensurate investment into modern equipment. Rather, students swarmed into and flooded existing schools, which made quality education almost impossible. The report notes that "In sub-Saharan Africa, with teacher recruitment lagging behind growth in enrollment, ratios stagnated and are now the highest in the world at the pre-primary and primary levels. Of the 162 countries with data in 2011, 26 had a pupil/teacher ratio in primary education exceeding 40:1, 23 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa."

In some countries, such as Malawi, classes are overcrowded at the tune of 130 students per classroom. Or take Tanzania, for instance, which by World Bank estimates, has already met the MGD second target. The report notes that only 3.5% of Tanzanian students had a "sole use of a reading textbook". In Chad, only one in four schools has a toilet. In these cases, it is hard to find value in the "impressive" enrollment rates or the numbers of students in school.

Second, quality education springs from quality teachers. This means that teachers without quality training and better pay and familiarity with the basics of modern technology, cannot be expected to increase quality education and form the next generation of innovators. The report estimates that there is an urgent need of 5.2 million additional "trained" teachers to be recruited by next year, if the trend is to be reversed. Most teachers who were added in the past were "without training". The education systems in most countries, devised in the 1950s, are outdated and need reforms to meet present job market requirements.

Access to classroom has been (and still is) a major problem in itself, and it is good news that children are at least now in school. But focusing on just one component does little to solve the problem. Both access to classroom and learning outcomes have to go in tandem. They are two wheels of the same bicycle: It is not a good idea to tear them apart if your goal is to move, especially if you want move fast.

"Spending time in primary school is no guarantee that a child will be able to read and write", the report notes.

It should be a guarantee.

Otherwise, what is the point of going to school? And, equally relevant, what is the point of setting up goals that push some of the World's poorest countries to invest 129 billion in a business with little return? Maybe they could have figured a better way out. This article was first published in French in Libre Afrique.