FEATURE STORY

How to Fix Poor Quality Education in South Asia

June 30, 2014

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In today’s world of rapid technological change and increasing global competitiveness, South Asian countries need a well-educated and skilled workforce to sustain long periods of growth.
  • While the region has made tremendous gains in expanding access to schooling over the past decade, a new report by the World Bank says that poor quality education is holding the region back.
  • Large numbers of students appear to be learning little; up to one-third of those completing primary school lack basic numeracy and literacy skills.

The state of education in South Asia

In today’s world of rapid technological change and increasing global competitiveness, South Asian countries need a well-educated and skilled workforce to sustain long periods of growth. While the region has made tremendous gains in expanding access to schooling over the past decade, a new report by the World Bank, Student Learning in South Asia, says that poor quality education is holding the region back.

In the first comprehensive study to analyze the performance of South Asian educational systems in terms of student learning, the World Bank highlights two main areas of concern. First, nearly 13 million children ages 8 to 14 years remain out-of-school. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the quality of education for those attending school is low and does not equip students with adequate skills to join the workforce.

Large numbers of students appear to be learning little; up to one-third of those completing primary school lack basic numeracy and literacy skills. Many students in rural schools are being taught by teachers who barely know more than their students.  And limited access to secondary education, which is often of poor quality, exacerbates the problem. Halil Dundar, coauthor and team leader of the report says, “unless the focus of education policy is explicitly shifted to improving student learning, the investments governments have made over the past decade will be wasted."

The challenge of improving student learning in South Asia

Student learning is complex and often influenced by a wide range of factors, including student background, school-level and system-level characteristics. The South Asia region faces particular challenges that further complicate the task of improving student learning outcomes.  

First, South Asia has the highest number of school age children of any region in the world, and many are the first in their family to attend school. Second, schools in South Asia face the challenge of educating students from a greater myriad of socio-economic and linguistic backgrounds than anywhere else in the world. Third, most countries in the region have conflict-affected areas where the learning challenge is especially high.  Fourth, there is very little systematic evidence on which policy interventions can improve student learning in this context. 

Open Quotes

Just spending time in school is not enough. There has to be a significant gain in skills that requires an improvement in the quality of education. Close Quotes

Philippe Le Houérou
World Bank Vice President for the South Asia Region

How to improve education quality in South Asia

While there is no magic bullet to fix the quality of education in South Asia, the report identifies a few key strategic priorities. “Given the multiple dimensions of the problem, the World Bank’s Education 2020 Strategy is especially relevant: Invest Early, Invest Smartly, Invest for All,” notes Amit Dar, Director of the World Bank Education Practice.

The report recommends focusing on the following areas to improve education quality in South Asia:

1.  Make learning outcomes the central goal of education policy. This means consistently defining and tracking student learning outcome measures, and then using those measures to guide all aspects of education policy, including teacher deployment and training, and allocation of public spending on education.

2.  Invest in early childhood nutrition. South Asia has the world’s highest rates of childhood malnutrition and this has a damaging effect on children’s ability to learn. Governments must ensure that all children receive appropriate nutritional and health inputs so that they have a fair chance at learning.  A multi-sectoral, cross-departmental approach will be critical to achieve this.

3.  Improve teacher effectiveness and accountability. One component is establishing clear standards for teacher recruitment and deployment, with strong safeguards against non merit-based decisions.  Another component is providing teachers with pre-service and in-service training that equips them with up-to-date teaching methods. It is also important to set up performance-based career progression structures that can help attract and retain the best teachers.

4.  Adequate instructional support in early grades. To help first-generation students succeed, teachers need to be trained to improve early grade reading skills. The curricula must also be streamlined.  In the interim, supplemental remedial instruction can help disadvantaged students learn.

5.  Leveraging the contribution of non-state players. Non-state players should be encouraged to participate in designing innovative ways to improve schools, finding ways to ease barriers to entry, carefully designing public-private partnerships, and using nimble but effective mechanisms to increase the education sector’s accountability to students, the state and society.

Reorienting education systems to focus on quality will not be easy in South Asia. As elsewhere, political will is key. Tara Béteille, coauthor of the report says, “for technical solutions such as those identified in the report to work, they will need to be embedded within a larger agenda of inclusive growth and governance reform.”