The goal of providing a universal primary education to all girls and boys in the world may have increased the number of "bums on seats", research in Tanzania has shown.
But overcrowded classrooms, a lack of trained teachers and poor resources have led to poorer education standards than before, according to Uwezo, a research group operating in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
A conference on education and international development held last week in Edinburgh heard that by the end of primary, only three-quarters of pupils aged around 12 could read at a very basic level in their native language, Kiswahili, and only half in English; one in five pupils could not do basic maths.
The Tanzanian government last year reported that "illiteracy increased from 11 per cent in 1986 to 31 per cent in 2010", Samantha Ross, programme director of Link Community Development, told the conference at the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh.
Success in meeting Millennium Development Goal 2 (MDG 2) - universal primary education by 2015 for boys and girls alike - did not necessarily equate to an education that "equips learners with basic skills needed to develop their own lives", said Dr Ross.
"We need to ask ourselves, have we succeeded in MDG2 if a child finishes seven years of primary education and is still not able to read in their country's dominant language or perform simple maths - two skills that are considered essential if a person is to develop and grasp opportunities to break the cycle of poverty they might find themselves in?"
She identified four ways for Scottish organisations to support "quality" in the education systems of developing countries:
- Teacher training - equip teachers with the skills to manage large classrooms, assess progress, understand curricula, use current pedagogy, develop leadership and management abilities to improve classroom and school practices;
- Engage the community in supporting the school in ways such as teaching parents about the value of education;
- Measure and evaluate school performance to show schools (and district and national government) where the strengths and weaknesses are, so that gaps can be filled with minimal resources available;
- Help develop real inclusion - for girls, people with disabilities, the sick, ethnic minorities, orphans and the desperately poor.
She urged organisations that specialised in just one aspect of support - such as teacher training or school feeding - to partner up with others to ensure a holistic approach was being taken.
"Providing textbooks, supplying school meals, building classrooms or sending notebooks and pens from Scotland to Africa all enable education - but for only one generation of children. They are not sustainable and often exacerbate the donor dependency that we should be moving away from," said Dr Ross.
"Africa has textbooks, pens, notebooks and cups - they do not need ours. What is sustainable is support in capacity building to ensure lessons learned produce better outcomes from one generation to the next."
It would, she suggested, be better to focus support in areas of "real" need such as training teachers in special educational needs for disabled children.
Peggy Mwanza, a teacher trainer from Zambia who is doing a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, said the introduction in 2002 of a free education policy had led to a rapid increase in pupil enrolment, but also overcrowding in classrooms in her country.
In urban areas, there were 70 to 100 children per class, and teachers needed training and support in handling such high numbers.
Teacher training, however, was often theoretical in approach and "not always well aligned to the needs of the classroom".
Student teachers had to share a textbook among seven, while lecture rooms could hold up to 500 students. After their training, new teachers sometimes had to wait two to three years to be given jobs, despite shortages, particularly in rural areas.