Schools in poor countries are failing women

Schools in poor countries are failing women

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T has been disastrous for children. According to the World Bank, school shutdowns have set learning back by months or even years. In many poor countries, however, the learning losses have been muted. That reflects failure rather than success. In these countries the quality of education is so bad that being out of school barely matters. A working paper by researchers at the Centre for Global Development, a think-tank, suggests that the problem is part of a worrying long-term trend in poor countries: even as more children have enrolled in schools, education quality has steadily declined or remained stagnant.

Demographic and health surveys conducted in more than 80 poor countries over a span of 40 years show that access to education has increased dramatically. In South Asia only 29% of women born in 1960 have completed at least five years of schooling. But among women born in 2000, the figure is 84%. Similarly, in sub-Saharan Africa, 35% of women born in 1960 have had at least five years of education. Among those born in 2000 the rate increased to 70%. The surveys used in the analysis had less information for men but the available data suggested a similar trend.

Greater access to schools, especially for women, is a remarkable achievement. The problem is that quality is not keeping up. The researchers measured the ability to read one sentence, among women who have completed five years of schooling, as a proxy for the quality of their education. In 56 countries literacy rates decreased among women born in the 1960s compared with those born in the 1990s. Countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa experienced the biggest declines. In India the percentage of women born in the mid-1990s who are able to read one sentence—after five years of schooling—is just 45%. For women born in the 1960s it is more than 80%. The trends for men are similar.

In South-East Asia and Latin America, education quality has remained stable over time, despite higher school attendance. Only 14 countries, including Peru and Vietnam, have significantly improved the quality of their education, with women born in later cohorts more likely to be literate than those in earlier cohorts.

One explanation for this decline in education quality could be that as more students enter classrooms, the quality of teaching suffers. There has been an influx of students from low-income households in schools globally, especially after several countries made primary education free. These students may be less prepared for classroom instruction and find learning to read more difficult. These factors could explain some of the decline in education quality—but not all of it.

Instead the results of the study suggest there may be systemic problems with the way countries deliver education. A report by the World Bank in 2017 blamed poor teaching, ineffective education policies and inadequate management of schools for what it called a global learning crisis. Covid-19 did not help. The pandemic forced poor countries to grapple with delivering education remotely. Now they must focus on a more fundamental issue: improving its quality. ■

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