Targeting quality over quantity in #163;1bn spend
It is the second largest provider of education to the developing world, with a target to support 11 million children in schools by 2015.
But the UK's Department for International Development has admitted that it needs to focus more on the quality of education it delivers, in response to criticism that it is not getting value for money from its #163;1 billion-a-year education spending.
"It's not just about getting children enrolled; it's (that) when they come out of school, they've actually learned something," Justine Greening, secretary of state for international development, told TES. "In Pakistan, one of the problems was that children were turning up to school but there wasn't always a teacher there."
A report by the UK Parliament's National Audit Office in 2010 found that school enrolment had increased hugely in the department's priority countries, but it said that too little attention was paid to quality, with low attainment and frequent absence among students and teachers. School completion rates varied from 57 per cent in Nepal to 17 per cent in Malawi.
But Ms Greening said that measures to improve the quality of education in places such as the province of Punjab in Pakistan are now in place and are having an effect.
"It's been personally led by the chief minister of Punjab, and he has a round-table meeting essentially once a week to go through the results by district," she told TES. "If there's a problem he literally picks up the phone in the meeting and finds out why. Pakistan is a huge country with a very big population, but what that project shows is that with resources and a clear focus you really can make a difference."
Teacher attendance in the region has risen to 90 per cent over the past 18 months, thanks to new monitoring procedures, and an extra 750,000 children are attending school each day, she added.
The department also said that the Punjabi government has begun appointing teachers on merit rather than because of political and family patronage, improving the quality of recruits.
But Pakistan is one of the places, along with sub-Saharan Africa, that is likely to miss the United Nations Millennium Development Goal to have universal primary education (for children aged 4-11) by 2015. As the UK prime minister David Cameron prepares to report to the UN on plans for future development goals, Ms Greening said that there has been significant progress and urged UN members not to lose momentum.
The minister spoke to TES at a reception for Shape the Future, a competition sponsored by education company Pearson, in which UK schools can make proposals about what should be included in future development goals.
"A lot has been achieved," she said. "The Millennium Development Goals have been galvanising. There has been huge progress where it was possible, and we are now looking at a chunk that remains, which is harder to reach for a particular reason."
Problems with conflict states and nomadic populations were among the obstacles, she said. "It's not that people haven't tried, it's just that it's been a tougher thing to deliver. It's one of the reasons Britain has been advocating that we don't ditch the Millennium Development Goals and get a new set - we need to look at how we can finish off the job with the ones that are already there."
But Ms Greening added that some countries have made huge progress: the UK government has stopped sending aid to India and South Africa because it is no longer needed. India is now investing #163;50 billion of its own money in health and education programmes, dwarfing the previous #163;280 million of UK aid.
"People often ask, 'Does development make a difference?' And the answer is 'Yes'. So we should continue to challenge ourselves and continue to ensure we target (aid) at countries where we know it can make the biggest difference," Ms Greening said.