The drive to get more children in developing countries into schools has failed to deliver real educational improvement, with the achievement of children in poor countries still lagging far behind that of their peers in the rich world, according to the World Bank.
The result, the bank said in a report released in September, is a global “learning” crisis that raises questions about the capability of governments in Africa and south Asia to prepare children for a future in which even simple jobs demand greater skills.
“This learning crisis is a moral crisis,” the authors of the World Development Report write. “When delivered well, education cures a host of societal ills?.?.?.?But these benefits depend largely on learning. Schooling without learning is a wasted opportunity. More than that, it is a great injustice: the children whom society is failing most are the ones who most need a good education to succeed in life.”
Thanks to a combination of corruption and poorly paid and badly trained teachers the report finds that while more students in the developing world are attending school, they are often learning little while they are there. The result is a daunting gap in skills with their peers in the rich world.
When primary school pupils in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda were asked to read a simple sentence such as: “The name of the dog is Puppy,” three-quarters could not understand it. In Brazil studies show that at the current rate of progress it will be 75 years before its 15-year-olds have the same maths skills as the average OECD country, while in reading it will take more than 260 years.
Even in middle-income countries where the gap is smaller, students are trailing significantly. In countries such as Indonesia, Jordan and Peru students in the 75th percentile in maths barely meet, or even lag behind, the 25th percentile in OECD countries.
The study points to the effects of income inequality within countries. In Uruguay students in the lowest income quintile were five times as likely to lack maths proficiency as those in the highest quintile.
But it also highlights the way some governments in east Asia in particular have addressed the problem. China has built a strong record on education in recent years. So, too, have countries such as Vietnam where a 2012 OECD test measuring achievement in maths, science and reading showed 15-year-old students scoring as highly as their peers in Germany.
Researchers at the World Bank argue that the learning crisis has only begun to come to light in recent years as more poor countries conduct achievement tests.
But the paucity of data remains a problem in many parts of the developing world. For that reason one of the main recommendations of the World Bank report is for countries to do more to assess learning achievement rather than rely simply on school enrolment figures.
Paul Romer, the World Bank’s chief economist, said: “The only way to make progress is to find truth from facts. If we let them, the facts about education reveal a painful truth. For too many children, schooling does not mean learning.”