Defining quality and inequality in education.

Author:Guttman, Cynthia

Since positive messages do not often make headlines, we should welcome a few indications of progress towards education for all. There are more children going to school than ever before, even though the current pace of progress is too slow to reach universal enrolment by 2015.


Education is capturing heightened global attention. At the World Economic Forum in January 2005 in Davos, Switzerland, business and political leaders ranked education as a leading global concern, recognizing it as a key to beating poverty. As the year-long "Make Poverty History" campaign kicked off, the G-7 finance ministers pledged more aid and debt relief for developing countries, paving the way for the G-8 summit in July in Scotland, which will focus on Africa. In September, the spotlight will be on the heads of State meeting, an occasion to review progress towards the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and to urge nations to follow through on their commitments.

The current year is a first summoning. By signing up to the MDGs and the Education for All (EFA) goals in 2000, countries pledged to eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005. But the mark is likely to be missed in some seventy countries. Progress in narrowing the gender gap has been substantial but too slow to meet the 2005 target. Africa and South and West Asia remain the epicentres of educational deprivation. Three quarters of the world's 103 million out-of-school children live in these regions, a majority of them girls. Household poverty, social norms and traditions, and the cost of sending children to school infringe upon the right to education, according to the EFA Global Monitoring Report (GMR) 2003/4, Gender and Education for All: The Leap to Equality. But as many low-income countries take bold measures to broaden access to schooling--abolishing tuition fees, introducing measures to help the most underprivileged--the poor quality of education is emerging as a foremost obstacle to progress.

In one third of countries with data, less than 75 per cent of students reach Grade 5, reflecting issues of household poverty and poor quality of education. Overcrowded classrooms, poorly-trained teachers and a lack of textbooks and sanitation facilities are the daily reality in many schools.

National and international assessments provide one yardstick for measuring educational achievement. These tests also provide a valuable measure of how well the curriculum is being learned. Results show that in many low-income countries, more than one third of children have limited reading skills after several years of schooling. The Southern and Eastern African Consortium for...

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