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Wise 2014: 'When it comes to free universal primary education, we need quality as well as quantity'

Ed Dorrell, deputy editor of the TES, writes:

The terms of the debate have changed.

The world's policy-makers and education systems may have failed spectacularly to meet the Millennium Development Goal of free universal primary education by 2015, but it hasn't stopped them moving the conversation into a different sphere.

If three days at Wise have concluded anything, it is that while there must not be a loss of focus on the promised land of universality, the quality of that education is paramount.

So while there may be a staggering 58m primary-age kids around the world without any schooling at all, many in the global education firmament are now worrying that many of those who have been enrolled may as well not be there.

Much of the credit for the increases in participation since 2000 goes to the pressure put on developing-world governments to make their provision entirely free.

But now educationalists, NGOs and these governments themselves are peering inside these newly packed primaries and, all too often, aren't terribly impressed by what they see.

The issue, overwhelmingly, appears to be one of teacher quality. In short, it doesn't really matter if the kids are present and correct if the teacher is way below par. Or possibly worse, not even there.

In Afghanistan, for example, we learnt today that something like half of all teachers have numeracy and literacy rates below KS2 levels, while in some areas of India, teacher absenteeism stands at 25 per cent. This is a pattern replicated in much of the developing world.

The consequences can be deeper than simply a bad classroom experience: too often reticent parents will be persuaded that school isn't worth it.

It is this problem that is motivating both the NGOs that are engaging in education in these regions and, very differently, the organisations setting up the low-cost private schools that are springing up across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

These camps often oppose one another on principle – one rejecting for-profit models, the other the supposed ineffectiveness of not-for-profits – but they are two sides of the same coin.

Universal, free primary education would be good. Universal, free, high-quality primary education would be much, much, better.

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