Wednesday, 01 August 2018 09:37

If every child went to school Featured

Universal lessons

Their lives would be better, even if they did not learn very much

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AS YOU WALK from classroom to classroom at Tibba Khara school on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan’s second-biggest city, the children seem to disappear. Pandemonium prevails in the first classroom, packed with five- and six-year-olds in their first year of school. But pass through the next few rooms, with progressively older classes, and both the number of pupils and the volume level steadily diminish. By the time you reach the class of ten- and 11-year-olds, there are just a handful of pupils left, silently studying.

This pattern of school attendance, steadily declining with age, is not unique to Pakistan. The global share of children who do not attend primary school has fallen from 28% in 1970 to 9% in 2016. But progress is stalling, and is less impressive than it appears. The share of children not attending school has fallen by less than one percentage point since 2007. Some 63m children of the relevant age do not go to primary school; another 200m do not attend secondary school. And although roughly the same proportion of children start school in rich and poor countries, most in poor countries do not finish. Fully 96% of children in the OECD club of mostly rich countries attend secondary school through to the age of 16; in poor countries the share is just 35%.

The highest dropout rates are in sub-Saharan Africa, north Africa and the Middle East. Girls from poor rural families fare especially badly. Fewer than one in 20 such girls in sub-Saharan Africa can be expected to finish secondary school. Worldwide, girls remain twice as likely never to start school in the first place.

In principle the world is committed to making sure every child attends school until the age of 16. In 2015 the members of the UN pledged that by 2030 “all girls and boys [will] complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education.” In 2016 a commission of the great and good (plus Shakira, a pop star) recommended increasing annual spending on education in developing countries from $1.2trn in 2016 to $3trn in 2030, in part to ensure every child completes school. What if that were to happen?

Perhaps naturally, educationists assume that it would lead to millions more children cramming their brains with knowledge. But evidence from schools in poor countries suggests otherwise. Many children learn precious little in their classes. If you want to find an uneducated child in today’s world, argues Lant Pritchett, an economist at Harvard University, “you can find them in school”.

The extent of the failure is immense. According to a survey of three east African countries (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) published in 2014, three-quarters of pupils in the third year of primary school could not read a sentence such as: “The name of the dog is Puppy.” In rural India almost the same share could not subtract 17 from 46, or perform similar calculations with two-digit numbers. Research by the Centre for Global Development (CGD), a think-tank, suggests that in half of the developing countries for which they have data, less than 50% of women who left school after the age of 11 can read a sentence. UNESCO, the United Nations body responsible for education and science, estimates that six out of ten children worldwide (a total of more than 600m) do not meet a minimum standard of proficiency in reading and maths. The vast majority of these children are in school.

If the children not in school began attending, it is therefore unlikely that they would learn much either. To understand why, consider what happens—or does not happen—in classrooms. According to data from the World Bank, rates of teacher absenteeism in developing countries range from 11% to 30%. (In Uganda the rate is 60%.) And teachers who do show up often cannot teach. In South Africa, for example, nearly 80% of primary-school maths teachers have knowledge of the subject below that expected of a sixth-grade pupil. Those who can teach frequently focus their attention on smarter pupils, ensuring that laggards fall further behind. A study published in 2016 found that the knowledge of sixth-grade pupils in a poor part of Delhi is 2½ grades below what the maths syllabus expects of them. That gap grows to 4½ grades by for ninth-grade pupils.

Poverty makes educating children much harder. Children who turn up tired and hungry struggle to pay attention. Teachers who do not have books, equipment or electricity cannot concentrate on teaching arithmetic and language. But the problems in the classroom are political, not financial, in origin. Teachers are often appointed on the basis of patronage, not merit. Powerful teachers’ unions protect woeful educators when they should be sacked. Politicians prefer cutting ribbons outside new schools to improving what happens inside them.

Spending more money on current education systems would probably do little to improve what happens in the classroom. A review of 30 randomised-controlled trials, published in 2013 in the journal Science by Michael Kremer, Conner Brannen and Rachel Glennerster, found that “more-of-the-same” policies would have little or no effect on the quality of learning. These included interventions such as adding more teachers to reduce class sizes, or paying for more textbooks. By contrast, changes that did not cost very much but are hard to implement, such as changing pedagogical approaches or introducing short-term contracts for teachers, were associated with higher test scores for pupils.

It sounds like a counsel of despair. If every child went to school, millions more would sit in woeful, boring classrooms. But while this sounds awful, it would probably still be good for them, their families and broader society. For, as Justin Sandefur of CGD points out, there is plenty of evidence that even when children do not learn much at school, they still do better for having gone.

Some benefits are economic. Attending school for longer is associated with earning more in later life, in part because those with additional schooling are more likely to get non-agricultural jobs and move to cities. This may indicate that young people are in fact learning something useful at school that is not being picked up by researchers. But it could also be a signalling effect: a shopkeeper may prefer workers who stayed at school for at least five years.

Attending school, even a bad one, also brings benefits related to health and fertility. Girls who attend school are likely to delay getting married and having children, even in countries where education is terrible. In Nigeria, where just 8% of women who leave school after the age of 11 can read a sentence, one study suggests that an extra year of schooling is associated with women having 0.26 fewer births. Similar results have been found in Indonesia, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, among other countries. Children born to these women are also less likely to be malnourished and die early.

There are several potential reasons for this. One is simply that if girls are at school they are not having sex at home. Another possibility is that schooling raises the opportunity cost of getting pregnant, by giving girls more to lose. In many countries pregnancy is grounds for expulsion, which means girls can no longer learn, or at least gain the labour-market advantage of having a few years’ extra education. Attending school can also improve a girl’s self-image. Simply wearing school uniform can increase girls’ self-esteem and their sense of not yet being adults. This may, in turn, give them the confidence to defer sex and marriage. And even if girls do not learn much from teachers, they may learn useful things from their peers—about contraception and child-rearing, for example.

Parents will send their children to school if they feel it will give them a better shot at life. They will keep them at home if they believe their children can make more money for the household working the fields or the marketplace, or if they worry for their children’s safety in the classroom. So efforts to reform schools and improve teaching would result in more children enrolling in (and completing) school. But even without such reforms, the implication from the research is clear: if every child went to school, no matter how terrible, they would benefit. Even a bad school, it turns out, is better than no school at all.

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