IDRC Pan Asia Networking sponsorship

Chapter 3.   Universal primary education:  concept, status and strategies

| back to Introduction & contents | Chapter 1 |

"The idea of progress is a synthesis of the past and a prophecy of the future" J.B. Bury.


UPE as a concept is a chameleon, taking on expanded meanings as more is understood about the nature of the problem.  It is seen, examined and explained by different people from various disciplines using different perspectives for different reasons.  The UPE goal post continues to shift and change as the concept of UPE is redefined and as one set of strategies lead to new problems.  The way UPE has been defined has also influenced the way its status and progress has been measured and the choice of strategies adopted to pursue the goal.  From a goal of simply increasing numbers in the 1950's, the targets have since expanded to include enrolment ratios, efficiency measures and, more recently, learning outcomes.  The term UPE has also been used interchangeably (and often confused) with other terms such as Basic Education, Schooling For All, and Education for All.  This is partly due to the problematic nature of developing suitable indicators for measuring the status and progress of universal primary education as the definition changed. 

Furthermore, our understanding of the definitions, the perceived constraints, and the strategies recommended is complicated by the way in which researchers, policy analysts and commentators bring their own disciplinary views to bear on it.  Economists tend to perceive constraints in terms of supply and demand factors (e.g. Allison,1983; Colclough and Lewin,1993), sociologists in terms of participation with regard to gender, social class and ethnicity factors (e.g.Kelly,1987; Anderson,1988; ) and educators from the perspective of inschool and out of school factors (e.g.Postlethawaite,1982; Bray,1984b; Yeoman,1985).   The multiplicity of perspectives on the one hand allow for meaningful insights but on the other hand, may confuse the untrained policy implementor. The choice of strategies that emerge, and those that get implemented may vary with the receptiveness of those who actually implement them.

This chapter therefore firstly examines the term UPE and looks at some of the issues surrounding the literal interpretation of the term and at the way it is measured.  Next the current status of UPE is considered world wide with a brief overview of changes in concepts, measures and strategies over time. Finally, the main issues considered in the literature and strategies proposed for improvement especially in the light of the Jomtien Conference, are highlighted. While there is an abundance of international literature on problems and strategies for UPE with regard to access, retention and quality of learning, only the main concepts and issues are discussed given the limitations of space and length of the dissertation.  

What is Universal Primary Education?

The Concept.

Universal Primary Education in the literal sense would mean everyone in a population having a full primary school education. However, when examined closely, difficulties emerge over what is meant by the terms "Universal", "Primary" and "Education" (Smith,1979). It therefore needs closer examination.


If Universal, this means all children of the target population have access to a school and secondly, participate. In most instances, poor population census and school enrolment data collection techniques in developing countries mean that it is difficult to know at any period how many children are in school and how many are not. Even where all children are enrolled in school, actual attendance rates may vary. Where countries have adopted compulsory education policies, many have not enforced the policy stringently (Colclough and Lewin;1993:261).

There are also problems with measures of the notion and the accuracy of its application. The actual age range of children in primary school is often much wider then the officially stated school age group. This is attributed to flexible first grade intake rules that allow children of varying ages to enrol, ranging from less then five years to fourteen plus years (UNESCO,1993:22), and to repetition policies permitted in many developing countries. As it is difficult to collect data on the exact age of pupils enrolled, estimates are made calculating the population in school as a proportion of the total official school age population with the gross enrolment ratio (GER) as the resultant measure. Some countries may have a GER of more than 100%, but given the wide age range, the real enrolment ratio may be far lower.

Such problems in measuring the status of UPE have led to proposals for changes. Colclough and Lewin (1993) argue for instance that the GER measure is inaccurate and a misnomer and that Schooling for All should be used to capture the true sense of a much wider age range. This however would simply change the tag without improving the measure. UNESCO has attempted to compute the "Net Enrolment Ratio" (NER) by extrapolating the age composition of primary school children and using the range of ages found in first grade enrolments. This is an improvement over the GER measure, but still an estimate that could be grossly inaccurate. For instance, a sampling of PNG Grade One age of entry data taken in 1983 was used to compute the NER for PNG in 1986 (World Bank;1987). This makes the unrealistic assumption that the distribution of the age range found in grade one intakes from a sample of schools in 1983, was the same across all schools and that this intake age pattern was the same for five subsequent years. This is unrealistic as the age composition may vary by region and from year to year depending on intake capacity and demographic trends. The GER is also generally misconstrued as a measure of access capacity (e.g. Lockheed and Verspoor,1991:224; UNESCO,1993:12, World Bank,1995a:33) and this affects the perceived constraints and strategies considered for UPE, a key issue discussed in the final chapter. It is a measure of participation; affected by access capacity and student drop out rates. Both initial entry to first grade and cohort completion rates would need to be used to give a clearer picture. It would be grossly inaccurate to assume that, because a country has a 70% GER, 30 percent of the school age population have not yet got access to a school. It may well be that all children do have access to a school but only 70% participate. The thirty percent not enrolled may either not have enrolled at all or they may have dropped out. On the other hand, while a country may have a GER of 70%, this can be an inflated figure if a large proportion of the children enrolled are outside of the official age range used for calculation (e.g. See GER of more than 100% for some countries in Attachment 1. Col.2.). In this instance, the real enrolment ratio may be far less then the 70% stated.


Primary education denotes and implies that this is the first level of education leading on to higher levels of education. The term "basic" may be taken by some to show changes in emphasis and indicate that primary education is a complete and terminal phase of schooling in itself (NDOE,1991). The Jomtien Conference adopted "basic education" under what was coined "the expanded vision" to include education for out of school youth and adults in literacy and other basic skills training through non formal education, a view theoretically supported by the World Bank (Verspoor,1991:1). The concept had first been proposed in a UNICEF supported document of 1973 (Coombs et al,1973), where minimum threshold skills seen as essential for individuals to participate in social, economic and political affairs were spelt out. This embraces the notion of basic skills for lifelong learning in tune with the basic needs approach to development as seen in major documents produced on education by UNESCO (Faure,1972) and in the World Bank's first policy sector working paper on education (1974:31). This perspective stems basically from a concern that cost factors would inhibit many countries from providing primary education via the conventional mode (i.e. length, curriculum and delivery mode), and therefore alternative cost effective forms of delivering basic education were encouraged. Article 5 of the Jomtien declaration states that; "the main delivery system for the basic education of children outside of the family is primary schooling" (WCEFA,1990b:46), and that all countries should push for universal basic education by the year 2000.

For comparative statistics, UNESCO uses the age range, 6-11 years, as primary school age.  However, the length of the primary school cycle varies from five to ten years (See Appendix 5, Col.1.2). Some countries have all children going from one level to the next level of education (secondary) thus making the period of basic education available to all children more than that actually reflected in the phrase, primary education.


What sort of education then is basic? The Jomtien Conference resolved that basic education should meet what was defined as "Basic Learning Needs" (UNESCO,1992:69). These were to constitute those areas comprising both essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy and problem solving) and the basic learning content (such as knowledge, skills, values and attitudes), required by human beings to survive, to develop their full faculties, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions, and to continue learning. Each country would determine the specifics of what went into the basic education curriculum and offer this education through the conventional primary school or through alternative cost effective forms. The statement masks the wide diversity of views on the aims and purposes of education, issues of curriculum, the debates on vocational education and on education for rural and urban contexts.

The practical attainment of the targets set in skills and knowledge content is questionable. First, a high level of student dropout is resulting in as many as 50% of children in some countries not completing the full basic school cycle (See Appendix 5. Col. 3.2). This means that many have dropped out of school without acquiring fully the learning content set out in the curriculum. Secondly, even if all children did complete the basic school cycle, many would not have learnt or acquired the knowledge and skills covered in the school curriculum. International comparative statistics indicate poor achievement levels by children from developing countries in tests (See Figure 9). Participating without having learnt anything could be equated to not having attended school in the first place.

Issues of Measure.

The foregoing discussion highlights the problems with concepts, meanings and ambiguities surrounding what is meant by UPE. The concept and measure of UPE has evolved over time and the following section also reviews these changes. It is clear that as a result strategies to move forward to the target of UPE have also not been clear cut, and as a result, the goal post continues to shift

The Evolution and Changing Concept of UPE.

The UNESCO organised regional conferences of the 1960's defined UPE in the context of having all children of school age entering primary school and enrolment targets were set. While higher enrolment levels than those set were achieved (See table 2), even larger numbers of children were still out of school. In Africa, the target for 1970 was 20.4 million, but the actual enrolment reached 29 million, with even greater numbers still out of school, due partly to higher rates of population increases than anticipated. Head counting was not an accurate indicator of the problem, and the GER measure was adopted to indicate proportion of school age children in school as well as those out of school. The UPE goal moved from head counting to measures of the proportion of those in school with the GER of 100% as the target (Smith,1979; Fredriksen,1981).

Table 2. Projected and Actual Enrolment in Primary Schools, 1970 & 1980.

Region			1970			1980	
			Enrolment (m)l		Enrolment (m)	
			Projected		Actual Projected	Actual
Africa			  20.4			  29.4	  32.8		  59.2
Asia			124.6			243.0	220.0		330.8
Latin America
& Caribbean		43.5			46.6	n/a		64.8

Source; Lockheed and Verspoor (1991:23), 

At the same time, dropout rates and grade repetition rates were worsening, posing greater problems for education in the mid 1960's (Brown,1966, UNESCO,1966, Sapra & Sharma,1967). Both dropping out and repetition were connoted as a "Wastage" problem, evident of the dominant economic conceptualisation of the problem (Berstecher,1971). An international study conducted by UNESCO in 1969 on the nature and extent of the problem led to a conference in July of 1970 examining ways of reducing wastage (UNESCO,1972). Making education relevant and improving teaching and learning, were at the forefront of strategies proposed in a dual approach to improve the external, as well as the internal efficiency, of education systems. Some countries introduced automatic progression and compulsory education policies to eliminate wastage by repetition and dropping out. Follow up reports showed mixed results, with some countries having reduced dropout and repetition rates substantially, but overall repetition and dropout rates were still very high (UNESCO,1979). Dropout rates and repetition rates, where applicable, became additional measures (Prospects,1984). These however were not used directly as measures of UPE, but perceived more as an indicator of a country's inefficiency in use of resources.

The implementation of automatic progression and compulsory education policies probably led to the emergence of the problem of quality, where students were seen as being pushed through a production line (using the economic analogy), whether or not they had acquired the prerequisite knowledge and skills of the previous grade. This was also abetted by the increasing concern on the quality of learning in schools in the international arena following the launch of Sputnik and the commencement of the international comparative achievement tests (Goldstein,1996). Studies showed that schools did have an impact on student learning in developing countries ( Heyneman and Loxley,1983) with some inputs shown to have more impact on learning then others (Fuller, 1987). These have led to studies on monitoring textbook supplies, teacher quality and school facilities to monitor quality. Others use teacher pupil ratios, retention rates etc. as proxy measures for quality of learning. However, weak capacity in many developing countries, make it difficult to collect exhaustive data on type and quality of inputs, as well as information on the processes in schools in order to make timely and appropriate interventions (Ross and Postlethwaite,1988). Recently, the focus has shifted to learning outcomes in order to make schools more responsive to client needs and to induce competition for greater efficiency (World Bank 1995a:94-100). This entails setting out prescribed standards, and then to monitoring quality improvements through the use of exam results (Kellaghan and Greaney, 1992).

King (1991:220) points out that the conceptualisation of UPE may be changing following Jomtien.

Old Style UPE was mostly concerned with access-getting, enough places for the children to enter. New-style UPE might fittingly be renamed UPAA, universal primary access and achievement, since the new emphasis is not on entry but completion, not on mere numbers of children in class but on their achievement.

Strategies for UPE reflect that new dimension. The EFA Secretariat, the Unit set up following the Jomtien Conference to co-ordinate and monitor EFA activities reflecting the new concept, specify three major areas requiring attention in the primary schools. "Many school systems are characterised by low enrolment ratios, low completion rates and low achievement" (UNESCO;1992:64).

The PNG country report to the Jomtien Conference reflected the new UPE concept pointing out that UPE will be achieved once there has been a 100% GER, a 100% retention rate of students in the primary school cycle and a 100% passing rate of the primary final exams. UPE was articulated in the following manner:

From a quantitative perspective Papua New Guinea understands progress towards UPE as increases in:

a) access to schooling of the 7-12 aged population (equal for boys and girls);
b) retention within the system for six years;
c) attainment at least of Basic Skills as measured by a national examination at the end of grade 6;
(Department of Education,1990:11).

Problems with Conceptualising UPE, Measures and Strategies.

The foregoing discussion on the changing concepts as new problems emerged and the various perspectives through which these problems could be examined indicates the complexity and multidimensional issues of UPE. These can be confounded by a lack of clarity in conceptualising the dimensions of UPE, particularly when epistemologically biased. For instance, Bacchus (1991;5-6) includes increasing school enrolments and reducing inequities as quality improvement initiatives. Heyneman (1990) on the other hand, writes of a decline in quality when referring to a decline in levels of central government funding for school level inputs, and assumes that this has resulted in a decline in the actual quantity of inputs and in quality of teaching and learning.

Such multiple perspectives can lead to the dominance of certain perspectives to the exclusion of others. For instance the dropout and repetition problems are seen as issues of quality by educators while economists perceive this as an efficiency problem. The dominance of the latter perspective has focused attention on cost factors and the methodologies for calculating these costs (Berstecher,1971). This would then lead to adopting cost effective policies such as compulsory education and automatic progression policies, without due consideration to the pedagogical implications on quality of learning.

Even if there is agreement on problem definition and the identification of causal factors, the preferred remedial measures are subject to personal interests and the organisational dynamics of the policy process (Grindle and Thomas,1988). The multi levels of the education system and the legal framework within which they operate, the various individuals and interest groups (Archer,1983), further complicate the perception of problems and solutions. Central level administrators may argue for expansion of bureaucracies such as setting up curriculum development centres to improve relevance and quality of learning and to reduce student dropouts. Teacher Educators may argue for improved teacher training to achieve the same goal. Both may happen with very little change seen at the school level. School teachers may actually see students dropping out as a solution to overcrowded classrooms.

The development of appropriate indicators to define the problem drive policy is therefore considered to be of importance.

On Choice of Measures.

Measures or indicators chosen and used may inform decision makers on current status, help to define and identify problems, and to the setting of directions for progress (Nuttal, 1992:14). This aspect is well articulated by Burstein (1992);

Indicator development is usually driven and sustained by political interests, such as expectations that indicators can result in accurate information about the condition of education and that this information can be an integral part of the process of educational improvement. Moreover, indicators and indicator systems themselves are political entities. Their construction reflects particular assumptions about the nature and purposes of education, and they often embody beliefs about what directions reform should take. The indicators that are selected will push the education system towards the assumptions and beliefs they embody-that is, what is measured is what matters .(Underlining is my emphasis) ( As quoted in Bottani & Tuijnman; 1994:30).

The choice of indicators can help to define problems, in highlighting inequities and for influencing decision making to improve along desired parameters. However, as Nuttal (1994) points out and discussed above, ideological, epistemological perspectives and bureaucratic politics may lead to the emergence and focus on certain indicators to the exclusion of others. While some researchers propose a multitude of indicators for more effective monitoring (Ross & Postlethwaite,1992), these can also confuse policy makers and policy implementors, on what counts, and what is being measured. A focused set of indicators that captures the concept of UPE and provides a sense of direction for policy and practice is therefore of paramount importance.

This study adopts the PNG concept of UPE in embracing the GER, retention rates and student learning in schools. This is done principally because PNG has developed such a clear and simple measure for monitoring the new style UPE, and this format will be used in the PNG case study.

Current Status and Strategies for UPE

This section considers the current status of UPE and the strategies proposed to move countries towards that goal with regard to access policies, retention of students and quality of learning. The EFA Secretariat monitoring process has compiled a list of developing countries showing UPE status (UNESCO,1993; UNESCO,1994). This ranking has been used for tables four and five together with data from the World Development Report (World Bank,1993) to give a wider picture of status and trends. These are referred to in discussions in various sections of this study.

The comparative data presented is intended to provide a more informative and descriptive picture rather then one from which inferences can be made on cause and effect. Lockheed and Verspoor (1991), discuss various studies undertaken where such causal relations have been highlighted. Given the limitations of the dissertation, the brief discussion covers only some of the main problems relating to access, retention and on quality of learning particularly from an historical perspective.

Table 3.  Primary Education Indicators; Access, Efficiency and Overall Literacy

Table 4.  Primary Education Indicators; Funding For Education and Population Dynamics
|  Public Expenditure on Education as... | Pupil Teacher Ratio | Population Dynamics |

Notes on Table 3 and Table 4



  1. The ranking of countries is derived from EFA Status and Trends Report (UNESCO,1993:24-25). This ranking uses Gross Enrolment Ratios of developing countries (i.e. non OECD countries and excluding former Soviet Bloc Countries) from those who are assessed to be close to attaining UPE Status to the least closest.
  2. Other data has been derived from various tables of the World Development Report (World Bank,1993) and built into the ranking indicated above.

Explanatory Notes on Table 3; Duration, Access, Efficiency and Literacy.

Col. 1.1. Years of compulsory education.
Col. 1.2 Duration of first level education, in most cases primary education.
Col. 2. Gross enrolment ratios for 1980 and 1992, male and female.
Col. 3.- Internal efficiency measures of repeater rates and retention rates.
Col. 4. - Literacy rate as an indicator of the educational level of the wider population.

Explanatory Notes on Table 4; Funding, Pupil Teacher Ratio and Population Dynamics.

Col. 1.1. Public expenditure on education 1980 and 1990. as % of GNP.
Col. 1.2. Public expenditure on education 1980 and 1990 as % of government expenditure.
Col. 2. Pupil teacher ratio for 1980 and 1992 to show the trend and pressure of demand on existing facilities and resources.
Col. 3.1. Total population in 1992.
Col.3.2. Average annual population growth rate.
Co. 3.3. Life Expectancy as an indicator of social well being.
Col.3.4. Per Capita GNP as an indicator of economic wealth.

Access and Participation

Some regions of the developing world have already reached GER's of more then 100%, perhaps indicating an almost total participation rate by the school age population. Column 2 of Table 3 presents a country by country status. However, since entry ratio is not given, the GER measure should be treated with caution as an indicator of access. Declining trends in GER's are noted for Sub-Saharan countries between 1980 and 1990 as shown in table 5.

Table 5. Comparison of Trends of Gross Enrolment Ratio's, at Five Year Intervals, 1970-1990 by Regions.

These have been attributed to declining levels of resources allocated to education as a result of the debt crisis and the slow growth economies of the region (Reimers & Tiburcio;1993). This however, is not universally true. Many countries indeed show reduced levels of public expenditure on education and declining GER's (e.g. Kenya), but others (e.g. Ghana) show increases in funding yet decreases in GER's (see Tables 3 & 4). This again highlights the need for context based analysis rather then global generalisations.

Despite massive strides in enrolling large numbers of children into schools, these efforts are being defeated by population increases that outstrip the rate and ability of nations to supply places. Coombs (1968) initially drew attention to this problem as the "World Education Crisis". Even with increasing resources allocated to education, many countries have just not been able to keep pace with the population growth rate. Aptly described by some as; "running up the down escalator", Figure 4 illustrates the immensity of the problem, where projections made on current trends show that even if enrolments in primary schools were to increase from 652 million in 1990 to 753 million by the year 2000 (an increase of more then 100 million children enrolled in ten years), the number of children out of school will still increase from 129 million to 144 million.

Figure 4. Projected Total School Aged Population, Proportion in School and Out of School; 1990, 1993 and Year 2000.

Source; Based on UNESCO; 1994:14.

Population growth trends, it is argued, need to be reversed as most are growing at more then 2 % per annum (see Table 4, Col. 3.2). Conversely, enrolments need to increase at a faster rate then population growth rates in order to make significant reductions in the school aged population still out of school and to keep pace with population growth (World Bank;1995a:37). However, the later option is subject to a country's economic growth rate to sufficiently generate the extra finances to meet the demand. The perennial problem has thus been one of finding additional resources or to improve efficiency in order to meet the demands of a growing school aged population.

Teacher salaries cost more then 90% of per pupil cost and this pressure can be seen in the high teacher pupil ratios, with many countries having more then forty pupils to a teacher (Table 4, Col. 2). Some countries allow repetition with as many as 33% of enrollees being repeaters (Table 3, Col.3.1). Repetition policies with restricted access to the next levels in some countries may clog up the flow of students from one grade to the next, taking up limited places at school (McGinn et al,1992).

It is suggested in the international literature that strategies to improve participation need to focus on the adequate provision of school places, to remove barriers that prevent or inhibit children from participating and to improve quality of learning to enhance its appeal (Anderson,1988; Lockheed and Verspoor,1991). However the evidence on the effect of quality improvement strategies in enhancing the appeal of primary education is not conclusive (Hoppers,1994:178-181).

The cost factor is seen as a major underlying constraint. Colclough and Lewin (1993:8) calculate that an additional $146 billion over 1990 expenditure would be required to reach UPE globally by the year 2005. They recommend options on cost sharing, of raising additional resources through community participation, of redistributing expenditures from other areas to primary education and in implementing cost effective strategies to reduce the unit costs of schooling. Since teachers cost more then 90% of the total unit costs of primary schooling, they recommend multigrade teaching and the use of shift teaching to make more efficient use of teachers.

Where the supply of places is adequate, other factors may prevent children from attending schools. Costs (both direct costs as in fees and indirect costs such as foregone labour), the perceived utility of schooling, culture and religious beliefs all influence decisions on participation. For most countries, the GER of girls is far lower than for males (Table 3, Col. 2). In some countries the disparity is far greater then others but for most, the overall GER rates are also very low. Special policies to reduce constraints on participation, such as reduction of fees, locating schools closer to communities, making learning more interesting and the curriculum more relevant have been recommended (Lockheed and Verspoor, 1991; UNESCO,1993).

Retention of Students.

Currently, as many as 30% of those who enrol in first grade do not complete the primary school cycle. This varies considerably between countries, with some such as Bangladesh, Malawi and Madagascar, having more then 50% dropping out (Table 3, Col. 3.2. ). This is more evident in most countries with low GER's. Dropout rates remain the single most important barrier towards attaining GER's of 100%. Table 6 highlights the effect of the drop out problem on achieving a 100 % GER, where Bangladesh for instance could achieve a higher GER, if all entering grade one survived.

Table 6. Effect on GER by High Dropout Rates.

	GER (1985)	Percentage of 	Percentage of
		Population	 Entrants Surviving to 
		Entering Grade 1	end of Primary
Bangladesh	60	100	24
Bhutan	25	54	17
China	118	90	68
India	92	83	37
PNG	69	74	67
Philippines	106	100	66
Thailand	97	100	80

Source:  Adapted from Tan & Mingat,1992:54).

The most affected are marginal groups such as girls and children from homes of low socio economic status whose labour contributions towards family support are required elsewhere or where the costs of schooling are of great significance. Countries offering greater access opportunity to the next levels of education, and those with higher GNP per capita, perhaps indicative of increased levels of resource inputs and job availability in the economy, tend to have lower dropout rates (Tan & Mingat,1992). On the supply side; poor quality teaching, poor condition of school materials and facilities and overcrowded classrooms also contribute to children leaving school before completion.

The efficiency perspective, leading to a view common in the 1970's of the curriculum being irrelevant, causing children to leave school, combined with the growing problem of educated unemployment that emerged in the 1960's, focused attention on the development of more relevant curricula. The introduction of practical skills and the teaching of a ruralised curriculum was proposed but was not acceptable as most parents and pupils desired an academic curriculum leading to wage employment. Curriculum development centres were established to develop local and contextually relevant curricula that would make education more meaningful (Verspoor;1991:2). The production of improved textbooks, teaching materials and in teaching quality is part of that endeavour to increase the holding power of schools. In the main, the international literature suggests that improving the quality of education will reduce student dropout and improve retention (Lockheed and Verspoor,1991:41), although the research evidence is not conclusive (Hoppers,1994:178-181).

Most education policy intervention measures are concentrated on the supply side reflecting bureaucratic interests, and these may have limited influence in reducing the negative effects of the demand side factors. There is some illuminative research work on the demand side factors where factors external to the school, particularly the socio-economic conditions impact on decisions to attend and participate in schooling (Allison,1983; Subrahmanian,1997). Policies that address and take account of both within school and out of school factors, particularly those developed at school level, may in the long run be more effective then those developed at central level focusing on supply side factors.

The Quality of Learning.

Comparative statistics indicate that children from developing countries perform less well in exams then children from developed countries with higher incomes (see table 7). If countries were to develop their own testing and monitoring systems, they could be used to generate follow up action at different levels of the educational hierarchy in a country (Kellaghan T. & Greaney V, 1992). Others have carried out studies to identify inputs that impact on learning (Fuller,1986) with studies monitoring the levels of such resource inputs (Heyneman,1990, Ross & Postlethwaite,1992; McMahon,1993).

Table 7.  Average Test Scores of Students in Three Subjects by Per Capita Income Levels

Source; Adapted from Lockheed and Verspoor (1991:13).

Strategies to improve learning have focused on increasing the level of resource inputs in terms of teacher quality, textbooks, learning equipment and facilities since the mid 1980s (Verspoor,1991:13-14). Socio economic factors such as home, peers etc. are also known to affect student learning. Pre school education and the emphasis on education of girls have been proposed as strategies to address these factors. However, more recently, congruent with developments in the developed countries, the emphasis is on learning outcomes where such information would induce consumer preferences (World Bank,1995a; Burnett,1996:216), although choice between schools is often not available to many in developing countries.

From the international perspective, King and Singh (1991:71) set out what is termed "State of Thinking on Quality Education":

  • Trained teachers make a difference.
  • Class size is not relevant.
  • The provision of instructional materials is one of the most cost-effective ways of raising the quality of education.
  • Education is most effective if initial instruction uses the mother tongue.
  • Lavish buildings and equipment will not necessarily raise educational quality.
  • Examinations are a useful way of monitoring school quality.
  • Healthy well-fed children learn better.
  • Amount of learning time affects educational outcomes.
  • Quality depends on good decentralised education management.

However, there are mixed signals for policy options. For instance, while trained teachers may make a difference, Lockheed and Verspoor (1991:96) suggest that the costs of initial training can be reduced by using shorter initial training periods and greater use of teacher inservice sessions. In some countries like PNG, it may actually be more cost effective to focus on initial training because of organisational and physical realities that may preclude mounting expensive inservice training sessions for teachers. Class size may not be relevant, but in situations where there are more than 50 pupils to a teacher in a crowded classroom, class management can be problematic and hence learning can be affected. Even if examinations are a useful way of monitoring quality, the negative effects created by competition may cause greater problems for students and teachers.

The concept of quality is perceived in different ways (Hawes and Stephens,1990) and this can affect the selection of strategy. While there are many options for improving quality, responsibility for assessing the feasibility and actual decision on the choice of options should realistically be at school and classroom level, where the practicality and feasibility are better understood (Levin and Lockheed,1991; Davies,1996), and where a variety of local actors could play a more pivotal role (Webster,1993). In many instances, decisions made at national levels also do not take into account the varying contextual factors at sub-national and school levels. Such policy choices are also bound to be ineffective.

The dominance of the economics discipline in conceptualising the problem from a systems perceptive, permeates thinking on problems and solutions, and shapes much policy research. Inputs and outputs continue to be the main focus of policy research and of choice in indicators for quality. Such an approach ignores the actual processes of education. Little is known about the process factors, of how resources are utilised by children from different socio-economic circumstances, by teachers of varying characteristics, in different managerial and administrative frameworks (Haddad et al,1990:50). Global solutions could act as helpful pointers, but what Lockheed and Verspoor (1991) coin as "promising avenues" for preferred options over "blind alleys", influences much policy development in the developing countries- whether or not they are well fitted to the context.

Other Areas of Focus at Jomtien.

The prevailing debt crisis set the tone for the Jomtien Conference to centre around generating increased support for education and the adoption of more cost effective strategies for the provision of access to education for all citizens. Position papers from prominent scholars and the development agencies (drawn together by the organising committee ) set out firstly, to outline the declining trends in financial allocations to primary education of many countries and then to justify continued support for the primary education sector. This was done by highlighting the positive links between education and economic development and between education and social development (WCEFA,1990a:70-79). A second issue focused on mustering financial or other forms of support from all concerned and the adoption of cost effective strategies to make optimum use of scarce resources. These included alternative forms of providing cheap education, and the dissemination of success stories where this had been attempted. Notable papers from scholars included Carnoy on education and effects on economic and social development and Lockheed on policy options for improving primary education. Many of the latter issues emerge in the most influential book "Improving Primary Education in Developing Countries". Colclough presented a paper on the financial challenges of educating all the children and exploring cost saving strategies, much of which emerges in the subsequent publication " Educating all the Children" (WCEFA,1990:68-84).

While the focus was on promoting primary education, the notion of Education for All (EFA) was put forward in realisation that due to cost factors, not all countries would be able to offer primary education in the conventional form. It also recognised the multiple goals of the different international agencies where UNESCO was associated with literacy and adult education, UNICEF with female education and the World Bank for primary education associated with economic growth. Countries were therefore asked to identify other alternative forms of education that provided minimum skills and knowledge where necessary and required. This theme also reflected the notion of lifelong learning, a result of changes in economic conditions that called for the re-education of the unemployed in new skills. These multiple perspectives on the concept of EFA have also led to and shaped donor responses in a diverse range of activities (Buchert,1995).

Lockheed and Verspoor's (1991) World Bank sponsored publication highlights most of the strategies discussed and outlined at the Conference on issues of financing, of improving participation and quality, of management and of equity in primary education. Many officials of international agencies, officials in developing countries, and researchers at both national and international levels have used this influential body of work as a guide for shaping their own discussions on problem identification and on possible solutions. In addition to the three areas of increasing access, improving retention and enhancing quality as discussed earlier, other key areas discussed are briefly highlighted.


The high costs of education remains the main constraint to providing quality education for all and hence attaining UPE status. The Arab oil embargo of the 1970's, and expanding public sector in many developing countries contributed to overblown expenditure budgets that did not match revenues. This led to the debt problem with most countries having to adopt SAPs that specifically called for reductions in the public sector. Public expenditure on Education as a percentage of GNP declined from 1980 levels as a result in many countries (UNESCO, 1993:33, Table4, Col. 1). It is argued that this contributed to declining enrolment ratios, higher dropout rates and poorer quality learning (Heynemman, 1990). The Jomtien Conference was specifically held to call for a renewal of efforts to strengthen primary education in order to stem this tide. Given the state of economic growth and economic conditions in many developing countries, raising the level of funds required, as pointed out by Colclough and Lewin (1993), within countries is very unlikely as debt servicing continues to consume a large share of recurrent budgets (Hallak,1991). Many participants at the Jomtien conference called for crippling debts to be written off, and this still remains a contentious issue.

Strategies proposed for dealing with a lack of financial resources firstly attend to ways of securing new resources and secondly of making more effective use of the available resources (Hallak,1991; Colclough and Lewin,1993). Governments and international development agencies are also urged to take a concerted approach to providing increasing levels of financial support for primary education. Parents, communities, churches and non government organisations are called on to take a greater burden of education costs. Cost shifting strategies would involve shifting resources from other areas of government budgets and from higher levels of education to the primary education sector. Strategies to make more efficient use of scarce resources involve increasing class sizes where inefficiencies exist, use of mutigrade teaching where class sizes are small, and the use of shift teaching where population densities are high.


Improving managerial, analytical and technological capacities was also a strategic measure called for under the Jomtien Charter in order to undertake the changes and reforms required (WCEFA,1990b:84). The capacity to analyse situations, consider policy options, formulate plans and to implement is critical for the attainment of targets set and in making effective use of resources. The need for establishing and using management information systems to improve managerial capacity is also pointed out. Decentralisation of powers and responsibilities for school management is heralded reflecting the change in practice and experience of the school reforms in the US and the UK.


A more focused approach to reducing inequities in access and participation and the quality of learning between gender and socio economic groups was also agreed upon. Whilst the right to a basic education had been promulgated under the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, this was the first time that the international community (except for UNESCO and other humanitarian organisations) had reached a consensus on ushering this through, as a right to basic education.

Critique of the Jomtien Agenda and Resolutions.

Much of the existing critique of Jomtien reflects on the ambitiousness of the Jomtien resolutions, the expansive manner of the proclamations made and the false hopes these may have portrayed. Hallak (1991) calls this the "admirable ideology" of EFA and posits it as an international donor driven agenda. He also points out that national contexts vary from those assumed at the international level, and that poor countries will only achieve EFA through a long term process requiring tenacious effort, strong political will and brighter economic prospects.

The main critique relates to the need for greater sensitivity to context. Global prescriptions may not be applicable, given the varying conditions of countries at the national, sub national and even at the school level. Samoff (1996a) examines in detail the arguments for reducing class sizes and for applying multigrade teaching and points out that national figures on class sizes cannot be used to deduce policy strategies for varying circumstances between schools, and between regions. For instance, the low pupil teacher ratios noticed from the national level is the average pupil teacher ratio, but there are wide variations between grades with larger class sizes at the lower end and tapering off as students drop out. Rural schools with low population density are also likely to be smaller than urban schools. Cost effective measures will need analytical and managerial skills to negotiate and institute where required depending on the contextual realities. Riddell and Cummings (1994) adopt a similar stance when examining the alternative proposals for funding, financing and control of the costs of basic education. They argue that these also suffer from the use of concepts derived from macro level analysis that cannot be applied at the micro level. In other words, the global prescriptive approach suffers from a lack of ecological validity.

The practicality of implementing many of the reforms is also questionable. Shifting resources from tertiary to basic education is easily said than done. The tertiary sector constitutes physical buildings and individuals that cannot just be closed down. Even if they were shut down, there are no guarantees that the savings would be diverted to basic education. In any case, previous experiences of shifts in emphasis by donor agencies (Carnoy,1980), from different levels such as secondary to technical/vocational education and now to basic education could induce developing countries to take a sceptical stance of this new shift in priorities. Would they risk shutting them down only to realise later that it was a mistake and that donor priorities had shifted again?

The aims and benefits of primary education as articulated by the donor agencies often detract from the goals and values of education as seen by officials in many developing countries and ignore the varying contextual practicalities. This may create tensions in the articulation of policy options, in policy formulation and implementation. Actual practices may differ from the policy rhetoric. Even if policies for UPE were well thought out, their effectiveness could be blunted at the implementation level, if teachers, pupils and parents do not see the effects and benefits of those policies.

The assumed wider societal gains in economic and social benefits, to be derived from investing in primary education, that dominates the international policy discourse may not be seen in the same way by individuals. The goals need to be translated into meaningful purposes for the individual to want to participate in schooling. By satisfying individual needs, the larger goals of society in economic and social development would be attained. Bridging that gap, remains a challenge. Primary education no longer guarantees access to higher levels of education and to jobs with tangible benefits for the individual and the families that invest in the education of children. Limited access to the next level of education, fewer job prospects for school leavers due to slow economic growth, the futility of engaging in productive agricultural activities when there is no market, all reduce the perceived utility of primary education. This is perhaps the biggest stumbling block for UPE aspirations.


Despite the problematic nature of defining UPE clearly and setting achievable targets, the post-Jomtien evidence is clear. UPE will not be reached by the end of the millennium as declared at Jomtien. The mid decade review (UNESCO,1996b) adopts a rather optimistic view and points out that primary enrolments have been growing since 1990 in 80% of the countries and that the number of 6-11 year old children out of school is declining. However, this statement is vague and not supported by statistical evidence to show where these increases are. It also does not say what is happening to the dropout problem and improvements in actual learning. Its concluding remark that a serious acceleration is needed if education for all is to be reached in the future portrays the real situation. There are still large numbers of children out of school, the gender gap remains to be bridged, the dropout rates continue to worsen and the need for improvements in the quality of overall learning is ever more pressing.

Many of the functional problems in achieving UPE, it is suggested, stem from multiple dimensions of the problem, the various perspectives through which these are examined and the complex organisational dynamics through which UPE policy is developed and implemented. Secondly, the need for improved context sensitivity to the constraints to UPE is stressed. As discussed in chapter two, global strategies developed by international agencies based on macro level analysis of international situations are not compatible with the varying situations that require a variety of approaches at national, sub-national and school level. The critiques launched from the critical theory perspective stem mainly from the differences in goals and priorities for education articulated by the international agencies with those articulated by national policy makers and individuals within the developing countries. This can be counter productive in the long run.

A "Frame of Action" adopted at the Jomtien Conference set out specific tasks for action by individual countries, at regional levels and at the world level (UNESCO,1990:79-98). Tasks set out for each country in a step by step guide call for assessing needs, formulating education plans and putting in place policy strategies to improve basic education. Most of this was to be undertaken with donor support. Subsequent follow up work has included sector studies, regional discussions on activities being undertaken by respective countries with reports on plans and strategies being implemented. These are monitored and reported by the EFA Secretariat at the UNESCO office in Paris (e.g. UNESO,1993;42-440).

How were the national analysis studies carried out? How relevant were these initiatives to the local context? Samoff (1996a) in analysing some of the sector study reports has pointed out that many of the country level sector studies carried out in Africa reflected the dominant paradigm as articulated by the World Bank. How is national policy making and implementation affected by these influences? Do local views differ, and if so, do they influence the policy formulation and implementation stages? Would greater recognition of the local perspectives have implications for policy formulation and for the achievement of UPE targets as set at the Jomtien Conference?

The next three chapters pursue these questions using PNG as the case study. In chapter 4, the PNG context for UPE is covered, focusing on the current status of UPE and the policies and programmes undertaken. Chapter 5 examines sources of influences on UPE policy following the Jomtien conference, contrasting international with national influences. The perspectives of policy makers and administrators are also presented in chapter 6. In doing so, the issues of sensitivity to context and appropriateness of international policy prescriptions for UPE policies in PNG are highlighted.

www.pngbuai.com home

Site Search Engine

Section Directory