Third-World Schools Struggle to Catch Up

Two French experts discuss the challenge and proposed solutions

FOR many developing countries, especially in Africa, the 1980s was the lost decade in education.

As becomes clear from this debate between Francois Orivel, director of the Economics of Education Research Institute in Poitiers, France, and Adama Ouane, a researcher at a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) institute in Hamburg, what is needed, rather than a ``Marshall Plan'' by rich countries, is more imagination in using what is already available.

At international conferences in the 1950s and '60s, a target was set to provide schooling to 80 percent of children over the age of seven. Has this been reached?

Orivel: Unfortunately not. But there have been advances. Up to 1980, levels of schooling rose everywhere, including in the poor countries. Between 1981 and 1985 there was serious backsliding in all very poor countries. But what is taking place now is either a leveling off or an increase in the percentage of children attending primary school, even in the worst-hit countries.

Ouane: There is still a long way to go.... In Africa, there are 10 or so countries where the rate [of school attendance] for seven-year-olds is less than 50 percent. In three or four countries, it is less than 30 percent.

Which regions of the developing world have done best?

Orivel: Of the three areas - Africa, Asia, and Latin America - the last is the most developed. Apart from Haiti and two or three other countries such as Bolivia, [Latin America] has reached the middle-income category. So there is a connection between progress in education and the progress of the economy....

The contrasts are strongest in Asia. The Newly Industrialized Countries [Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea] have practically caught up with Western countries. A second group is coming along more slowly: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. The third group is at a standstill: Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Myanmar [Burma], Vietnam, and Laos.

India and China are two special cases, because of the the size of their populations. China has been quite successful in achieving access to primary education for all, but little effort has been made in higher education. India has not developed primary education to the degree China has, but its higher education is much better.

So the level of education depends on the level of economic development?

Ouane: It does and it doesn't. Those countries where education works are countries that have gotten beyond a certain level of development. But then look at Sri Lanka, which is very backward and yet has a remarkable educational system. One thing is certain - the training of human resources is capital for development.

Orivel: Yes, but not at any price. Poor countries that have good rates of school attendance are countries where education is working well and unit costs are within their means. Very often, poor countries with bad school-attendance rates have unit costs that are exorbitant.

Ouane: I think one has to be careful here.... The formulas that are being put forward at the moment as ways to reduce [education] unit costs are debatable. In most African countries, you have 60 to 100 pupils to a class.... When you have 60 or 80 people for one teacher, what you are making profitable is mediocrity.

Orivel: I don't agree. Over the past 30 years, educationalists have been selling a bad message: that the size of classes must be kept down.... Countries like South Korea manage to pay for schooling for a lot of students precisely because they put a lot of pupils in front of one teacher. You can save money if the size of the classes is carefully managed....

As for international aid, it is not the answer to everything. Countries that have made the most progress are not always the ones that received the most help. What is needed is to make aid more intelligent, better adapted to the needs of each country....

Does it have to be the government that controls education? ... Those countries that have taken public responsibility for education are not always the ones that have achieved the best results. For example, some African countries made the mistake of nationalizing all the private networks in the first decades of independence. The more privately run higher education is, the more public resources can be allocated to primary schooling.

So privatization is the solution for education in the developing world?

Orivel: The state has a vital role to play, but I also think it should have a policy of encouraging initiatives that it is not in a position to take itself. The state cannot do everything ... because public funds are very meager in poor countries.

One of the arguments that has done most harm to the development of educational systems in the third world is the idea that if education is private it is less equitable, and if it's public it's more democratic.... In countries where education is entirely public - India, Bangladesh, or Nepal - access to second-level education is rationed and to higher education even more so. Who goes to secondary school and university? Not the poor classes.

Name the education priorities for the developing world.

Orivel: I don't believe in a miracle worked by increasing public or foreign aid resources. It's a help, but the root of the problem will not be reached with foreign aid or additional public funds. What's needed is to mobilize existing funds, families, and business concerns to a maximum. And schools must be adapted to the local context.

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