Cynthia Guttman

Every year, the EFA Global Monitoring Report assesses where the world stands on its commitment to provide basic education for all children, youth and adults by 2015. This edition focuses on the importance of quality for continuing education and the attainment of the 6 EFA goals. Cynthia Guttman is the communications officer of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report. She previously worked as a journalist and editor, and is the author of a series of short publications on innovative educational programmes in developing countries published by UNESCO. The complete version of the report can be found on the UNESCO website:

Education for All: The Quality Imperative

Progress towards universal education is on the march around the world, although on current trends, the goal will not be reached by the 2015 target date set by over 160 countries at the turn of the century.1 Already, the pledge to eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005 will be missed in some 70 countries. The goal to improve adult literacy rates remains elusive: although literacy is central to achieving all the EFA goals, over 800 million adults, of which almost two-thirds are women, are illiterate.

The 2005 edition of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, published by an independent team based at UNESCO, tracks progress towards the six goals set in Dakar. This year it puts the spotlight on quality: as many low-income countries take bold measures to broaden access to schooling, the poor quality of education is emerging as a foremost obstacle to progress. In one third of countries with data, less than 75 percent of students reach the fifth year. This figure reflects issues of household poverty, but also, of poor education quality. National and international assessments provide one yardstick for measuring educational achievement. Although not the only barometer of education quality, these tests 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 in school. The SACMEQ2 study involving fifteen countries in Southern and Eastern Africa reveals that education quality has declined in recent years: comparisons between studies five years apart show a four percent decline in Grade 6 literacy achievement scores. In Latin America, national assessments in several countries showed for example, that in Nicaragua, 70 percent of students reached only the ‘basic’ level in language in 2002.

These results all suggest that a sole focus on access to education will not deliver education for all. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) affirmed that elementary education was to be made free and compulsory for all children, several international treaties and UN conference declarations have restated this objective. Most, however, are silent about the quality of education. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) and the Dakar Framework for Action (2000) – which spells out education quality as a specific goal – are exceptions. The 2000 Millennium Declaration, however, makes no explicit reference to quality, although the target to complete a full course of primary schooling implies that the quality of education is decent enough to permit this.

The 2005 Report reviews research evidence on what determines education quality and maps out key strategies for improving teaching and learning, especially in low-income contexts. Achievement tests are just one indicator of quality. Government spending (below the recommended 6 percent of GNP in most regions), pupil-teacher ratios (too high in countries where the EFA challenge is greatest), how long students stay in school and teacher qualifications all provide measures of an education system’s quality.

Because the learning process is complex, there are no straight answers to the quality equation. For a start, there is far from universal agreement on what the concept means in practice. Two principles generally characterize most attempts to define quality. The first identifies learners’ cognitive development as a major explicit objective of education systems. The second emphasizes the role of education in promoting shared values, responsible citizenship and creative and emotional development – objectives that are much more difficult to measure.

To make matters more complex, no general theory on what determines the quality of education has been validated by empirical research. Attempts to assess which inputs – teacher education, experience, pupil/ teacher ratio – have the largest impact on outcomes have been inconclusive, especially in developed economies where large increases in per-pupil spending have not had a significant impact on increasing test scores. The evidence is more clear cut in developing countries: higher per pupil spending translates into higher scores on literacy tests. But this model has come under sharp criticism. Reacting to the limitations of this “input-output” model, a new school of interdisciplinary research on school effectiveness emerged, focusing attention on the process of learning and the broader school environment.

Clearly, governments are faced with hard choices, precisely because improving learning means focusing on a wide array of issues, starting with the learner’s background. Several dimensions are considered essential in all contexts.

First, investment in teachers is critical. High pupil-teacher ratios – with classes averaging 70 students – prevail in countries with the greatest education needs. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is aggravating the crisis, contributing to teacher absenteeism and attrition. Too many teachers come to class with minimal or poor training. The proportion of new primary-school teachers meeting national standards has been falling in several sub-Saharan African countries. Balancing time and money spent on initial training and on-the job support for newly qualified teachers is a critical policy question. In many countries, there is room to shift the balance away from lengthy institutional pre-service training towards more school-based models. Earnings are also a contentious issue: they were lower in real terms in 2000 than in 1970, and often too low to provide an acceptable standard of living. In Sierra Leone, most teachers have to maintain a household of four to five people on less than US$2 a day. Head teachers and principals also deserve separate leadership training programmes: their engagement can have a strong influence on the quality of schools.

Second, “chalk-and-talk” teaching styles tend to dominate in classrooms, placing students in a passive role. Although flagship programmes built on more interactive methods exist in all regions, they are often difficult and costly to scale up. This has led many educators to advocate structured teaching – a middle way combining direct instruction, guided practice and independent learning. Third, students are not spending enough time learning: the broadly agreed benchmark of 850-1,000 hours of instruction per year is not reached in many countries. Fourth, reading must be considered a priority area in efforts to improve the quality of education, particularly for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. Fifth, the choice of language of instruction used in school matters. About 20 percent of the world’s population has a “local language” as a mother tongue. Initial instruction in the learner’s first language improves learning outcomes and reduces subsequent grade repetition and dropout rates. Sixth, the quality of learning materials strongly affects what teachers can do. National book policies can provide a framework for local publishing to develop. Finally, central governments must be ready to grant schools greater freedom, provided that adequate resources are available and accountability structures are clearly defined.

The GMR 2005 describes seven developing countries – Brazil, Bangladesh, Chile, Egypt, Senegal, South Africa and Sri Lanka – as ambitious because of their efforts to both expand basic education and improve its quality. South Africa, for example, has taken measures to make education compulsory for nine years, move better teachers to the poorer schools, introduce school governing bodies and equalize expenditure on schooling for all racial groups. Bangladesh has a vibrant non-governmental sector that has spearheaded educational innovations targeting the rural poor. Brazil has introduced large projects to reduce regional and social inequalities, including a scholarship programme for poor families, and initiatives to provide schoolbooks and train unlicensed teachers through distance learning. The case of several high-performing countries – Canada, Cuba, Finland and the Republic of Korea – also suggests broad common traits. All hold the teaching profession in high esteem, show policy continuity over time and share a high level of public commitment to education.

Although the Report places the focus on quality education at the school level, it emphasizes that improving education quality does not happen in isolation. Early childhood care and education programmes help with subsequent achievement in school. Gender-sensitive policies in education and more broadly based gender reforms in society directly improve the quality of education and its outcomes. Literacy improves adults’ commitment to their children’s education. The Report, for example, shows the relationship between the mother’s (or caregiver’s) self-reported literacy status and the risk of the children not attending school in Niger, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Bolivia. In each case, the risk is highest among mothers with low literacy skills. In Niger, 70% of the primary school-age children of illiterate mothers are not in school, compared to 30% among those whose mothers are able to read easily.

The Report draws attention to the challenges of defining and measuring literacy, topics to be developed in the 2006 report. The quality of skills development programmes is briefly addressed. Assisted by UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning, four countries – Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Mali, Nepal and Senegal – recently reviewed their skills development activities. In all four countries, national review teams found that governments tend to give little attention to disadvantaged and vulnerable young people who are not in school. Government-sponsored skills training is often scattered in nature and not well coordinated, involving not only the ministry dealing with education but also those handling other sectors and issues.

The Report also assesses levels of international aid and its effectiveness, drawing attention to efforts towards greater harmonization among donors. Bilateral aid currently stands at $1.5 billion per year. Although recent pledges suggest that this figure could reach $3.5 billion in the next five years, it is short of the estimated additional $5.6 billion required to reach the objectives of universal primary education and gender parity alone by 2015. As such, this figure does not address the goals of literacy and access to learning and life skills programmes for youth and adults – topics that will be addressed in the 2006 report.

Quantity and quality must be considered as complements, not substitutes in the drive to achieve EFA. Successful qualitative reforms require prime attention to the teaching profession, a strong leading role by government and policy continuity over time. Many reforms to improve quality are self-financing: they will result in more efficient systems, with lower drop-out and repetition rates. Finally, strategies to improve the quality of learning must be gender aware: an education system in which there is gender inequality or discrimination against particular groups on ethnic or cultural grounds is not a high-quality system.

Study after study demonstrates the powerful links between education and poverty reduction. Recent research suggests that the cognitive skills required to make informed choices about the HIV/AIDS risk are substantively based on levels of education and literacy. This is why achieving all the Millennium Development Goals – reducing poverty, empowering women, improving health, sanitation and environmental management – depend to a large extent on assuring that children, youth and adults benefit from good quality learning opportunities enabling them to better the future.


1 World Education Forum, Senegal, Dakar, 2000. The six Dakar goals cover early childhood care and education, universal primary education, life skills for youth and adults, adult literacy, gender equality and education quality.
2 Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality, involving fifteen countries.

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