The last decades have seen an impressive growth in school participation in developing countries. As countries have made remarkable progress toward universal primary school completion, the focus in the development community has shifted to reaching the most disadvantaged children and improving the quality of education. It has been recognized that even though universal primary completion is a major milestone for many countries, the quality of an education system cannot be assessed only by its ability to enroll and retain students. Most importantly, school should teach valuable skills that will help children achieve their full potential in life.
FHI 360’s Education Policy and Data Center (EPDC) has released a research brief, “Long Path to Achieving Education for All: School Access, Retention, and Learning in 20 countries,” which uses learning pyramids as a visual tool to show cumulative achievement of education systems and demonstrate how many children enroll in school, whether they remain enrolled until they reach a certain grade, and what percentage of them learn how to read. The report finds that although access to education is close to universal in most countries, not all of the students who enter school reach upper primary grades. Grade repetition is a common experience for many primary students, creating inefficiencies in education systems. Finally, a large number of those who reach the upper primary grades never gain basic literacy skills, defined as the lowest benchmark of a standardized learning assessment.
Pyramids: starting from access, through retention, to learning
The pyramids provide a snapshot of a country’s progress in providing universal school entry (access), keeping students in school (survival), and finally, teaching them at least minimum reading skills (learning). To measure school access, EPDC uses the percentage of 14-year-olds who have ever entered school. Retention is described by school survival rates — the percentage of enrolled students expected to reach a given grade. The level of learning is determined by using data from standardized learning assessments, including SACMEQ, PIRLS, SERCE, and PASEC.
As an example, the pyramid for Tanzania shows that 77% of boys and 81% of girls reach grade 5 and gain basic reading skills. In Malawi, the percentage is much lower, 43% and 39% for boys and girls, respectively. While school access is close to universal in Malawi, retention and learning both remain challenges. The difference between orange and light blue bars (children who drop out of school before they reach grade 5) and the difference between light and dark blue bars (children who reach grade 5 but do not gain basic reading abilities) signify these challenges. In Tanzania, on the other hand, almost everyone who reached grade 5 performed at least at the lowest level determined by the learning assessment test.
The long road to primary completion
In our calculation of survival rate, the number of times that a student repeated grades is not relevant, as long as he or she eventually reaches the final grade. Comparing survival and on-time completion demonstrates that behind high survival rates are sometimes hidden very high repetition rates. This suggests that many children struggle to master educational content in primary school. In Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Swaziland the difference between on-time completion and survival rates is the largest. This means that children either enroll much later than they should or repeat multiple times before they reach the last grade of primary school. In these countries, survival rates in primary school are about 90%, but only 16% (Côte d’Ivoire) to 30% (Swaziland) of children who are two years older than the official age of the final grade of primary have completed primary school.
Looking at all aspects of education
The weaknesses of the education systems that the pyramids expose are helpful in finding out where interventions are most needed. In some countries, improving learning is clearly the most urgent need, but in others the main focus may still be access and retention. Devoting all our energy to a single aspect of the education system may take us further away from the goal that education ultimately aims to accomplish: making sure that every child learns.
The comparison between on-time completion and school survival serves as an important reminder of how much inefficiency there is even in systems that manage to keep children in school. Ensuring that children not only stay in school but progress through subsequent grades at a reasonable pace is a critical challenge that will have to be addressed to improve the cost-efficiency of resources spent on providing education to all children.