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Poorest people, poorest education

Andrew Shepherd's picture
Andrew Shepherd
October 2012

As 2015 approaches, progress in education is getting a lot of attention. Many countries have seen promising results from investment in universal primary education, and many more girls are now enrolling in school. From a chronic poverty perspective, however, this is not enough: there are nearly half a billion chronically poor people, and many of them are children.

Firstly, children from poor families will only stay in school if it is really worth it – the quality of education has to be high and the school has to accommodate their social and economic circumstances (including lessons in appropriate languages for instance). Secondly, in most settings, completing primary school is not enough to enable the child to bring his/her family out of poverty – some years of post-primary education are normally necessary. Links into the labour market or self-employment also have to be negotiated.

The Chronic Poverty Advisory Network has just published a policy guide on Education, arguing that a life cycle approach to policies is needed, that addresses the links between education and chronic poverty.  But what does this mean in practice?

  1. Interventions across the different stages of the early life cycle, including: pre-school early childhood development and care; improving the quality of primary schools; interventions to make school affordable and accessible; and measures to prevent the ‘loss’ of adolescent years and help the transition to decent work.
  2. Governments identifying clearly what the barriers and opportunities for the poorest children are, which will vary in each context. The policy guide presents a menu, but good data and analysis are critical to ensure they are adapted to local circumstances.
  3. National policy makers may need to find creative solutions where it seems impossible to finance all the necessary interventions. Donors should be willing to provide initial finance for pilot schemes, and to roll schemes out nationally, where a country is on a path of economic growth which will allow it to finance future schemes.


What are these interventions?

Early childhood nutritional, care and pre-school programmes can prevent or reverse under-nutrition and compensate for inadequate care and lagged cognitive development in early childhood, all of which set children on a lifelong path of educational, economic and social disadvantage. Early childhood interventions are particularly relevant for low income countries with significant problems of under-nutrition, but evidence suggests they also improve attainment among poor and marginalised groups in middle and high income countries.

Demand for poor children’s labour means that schooling can have a high opportunity cost: it must be seen to be worthwhile if poor families are going to invest. Education quality improvements can be achieved through school governance reforms that increase accountability to, and the power of, parents. Quality reforms are key in low income countries which have experienced rapid system expansions, and where the overall quality of schooling provided is quite low. Improving the standard of teaching means improving the quality of the individuals recruited as teachers, investing significantly more in in-service teacher training, and revisiting salaries and other benefits to attract and motivate teachers.

Positive action to promote girls’ education and tackle social and institutional constraints to girls’ learning can reduce discrimination against girls in schools and at home. Gender disadvantage is more acute in poorer households, and reinforces other disadvantages common among the long-term poor. Education tends to strengthen women’s social, economic and political rights, setting in train a virtuous cycle of gains including early childhood development, women’s employment prospects, citizenship and participation.

The direct and opportunity costs of school are major deterrents for chronically poor families. Socially excluded and geographically marginalized groups often lack physical access to education. So, more accessible and affordable schools, including cash transfers and scholarships and inclusive approaches to education, help to reduce dropout and erratic attendance, which are endemic among vulnerable poor people. Schemes that enable re-entry into education and training and which offer life-long learning are also key.  Such ‘second chance’ schemes can focus on enabling working children to continue basic education, as well as on enabling youth to connect to vocational and life skills learning.

Chronic poverty often means a lack of access to the broader life and social skills that are important in 21st century job markets. It can also mean lack of access to the social networks through which jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities may arise. Skills development linked to employment and entrepreneurship can be provided through informal apprenticeships. There is much room for investment in programmes which seek to improve the quality and outcomes of such informal apprenticeships - replicating schemes such as the Jovenes programmes in South America.

This is a formidable agenda. But it really is time that international policy makers moved on from the useful but now outdated obsession with primary school enrolment that has resulted from setting the MDG target in these terms. The message for post-2015 policy makers is clear: beware the simplifying and distorting effects of setting such targets. They may be politically very attractive but will likely exclude significant populations who need a range of services to benefit from education.