In the seven years between 2000 and 2007, the world undertook a massive push to increase enrollments for all children in primary school. This organized effort was successful in reducing the worldwide number of out-of-school children by 40%. Surely, for many, the hope (and even the expectation) at that time was for a fast-approaching elimination of this global dilemma.
So, what of our progress in the last seven years?
We’ve been stopped in our tracks.
Since 2007, there has been nearly no change in the number of children left out of school each year. Data recently released by UNESCO suggest that in 2012, 58 million primary-age children were out of school, an increase of 1 million since 2010!
So what can be done to get these 58 million children into school? To answer this question, we must first gain a clear understanding of the barriers restricting children from participating in primary education. There are essentially two drivers of the current underenrollment problem:
Inadequate supply of education services
Low demand for education services
Increasing access to school requires policies and programs accurately targeted to address both the supply-side and demand-side barriers to schooling.
Government supply is critical but insufficient to meet global demand for education services
In most countries, governments are the major supplier of basic education services. As such, it stands to reason that most discussions of the out-of-school population focus on increasing the supply of government education services. However, much too often, government expansion is discussed as the only option for raising the supply of education.
Consideration of the state supply of education services is critical, but insufficient.
Recent World Bank research from Kasoa, Ghana provides evidence that private providers respond quickly to increasing demand for education. Where internal migration in Kasoa has caused the population to rapidly increase, the government has been slow to respond with an adequate supply of school services (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Ratio of the city’s population to the number of public schools, Kasoa, Ghana
In total, there are only 7 public schools in this city, whose estimated population is over 100,000. As a result, the private sector has expanded rapidly to meet the growing demand in the market (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Growth of non-government education providers (primary and secondary), Kasoa, Ghana
As we work towards the goal of seeing every child gain access to a high-quality basic education, particularly amidst aglobal decline in the amount of resources available for education, we need to recognize and leverage the contributions that private providers can offer to education. In many countries, the private sector is already helping, and will continue to help, overcome a number of obstacles currently restricting the education sector’s potentially robust contributions to reaching shared prosperity and poverty reduction.
To increase demand for education services, we must actively target specific demand-side barriers
Increasing access to schooling involves much more than simply building new schools, buying more textbooks, and training more teachers. A large body of global evidence from impact evaluations of education programs shows that demand-side interventions are often necessary for increasing student participation in school. And the most effective programs have one thing in common: they target the specific demand-side barriers inhibiting universal school attendance. Such barriers can be wide-ranging, including issues such as:
inadequate school quality
direct (tuition) and indirect (uniforms, books, tutoring, meals) school costs
health, sanitation, and nutrition deficiencies
Randomized evaluations of conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs in more than 20 countries—including Mexico, Cambodia, Brazil, Kenya, and others—demonstrate considerable impact of even small income infusions on school participation levels. Providing extra income to households offers particularly strong school participation effects for the most financially-burdened families.
A secondary school fee elimination policy in South Africa had positive effects on student attendance, but only for those student populations whose attendance had been previously inhibited by school costs. Simply providing students with information on the returns to schooling in Madagascar and the Dominican Republic was enough to increase student participation in school. Providing students with free school uniforms in Kenya reduced student absenteeism by 85 percent.
The notion seems obvious; unfortunately, too much policymaking is founded on too little information about the drivers of underenrollment. If we are to find success in providing education services for the 58 million children currently out of school, we need to pay closer attention to the supply- and demand-side mechanisms at work.