An obsession with primary education has backfiredby Clare Lockhart / November 14, 2012 / Leave a comment
Classes at the Behzad Gallery, Herat, Afghanistan (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Since the launch of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) over a decade ago, education gurus, ministers and aid officials have worked to get every child in the world into primary school. This focus has come at a price. The neglect of secondary and vocational training has translated into millions of people unequipped to participate in the work force. As a consequence, young peoples’ expectations do not match economic reality, leaving them marginalised and unemployed, and societies without the human capital necessary to sustain their own development. This has created a gap in the global agenda. With the MDGs’ term expiring, a revised approach is urgently needed.
The MDGs were launched in 2000, aiming to eliminate global poverty by 2015 through eight goals, from health to the environment. Their record is mixed. Supporters point to their success in building a consensus, in galvanising attention and resources, and in achieving significant gains. Critics point to their failure to have met any single goal completely; dozens of countries have made almost no progress; and most gains are attributable to the rise of India and China.
Universal primary education is the goal closest to being met: approximately 88 per cent of school age children in developing countries were in primary school in 2010, up from 81 per cent in 1999, and only 70m children remain out of primary school. International aid commitments to basic education grew from $2.1bn in 2002 to $4.2bn in 2007. The rationale was driven by analysis—now contested—based on 1967 data that suggested higher returns on investment for primary education relative to other levels. More recent studies covering Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia and others show that growth is correlated instead to secondary and tertiary education, especially once a critical threshold in primary education is met.
The emphasis on primary education likely had an unintended effect: it diverted focus and resources away from secondary and tertiary education as well as vocational training. The goal, that began as an objective, became a planning tool and even a restriction, preventing resources reaching children over 11. Countries including South Sudan, Kenya, Liberia and Tanzania were encouraged to curb funding of secondary and vocational training in order to focus on meeting the MDGs. I witnessed a meeting in Afghanistan where major donors told the government that…