Next Up for Developing Nations: Secondary Schooling

By Bess Keller — July 26, 2005 6 min read
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Parents and other supporters of Nkumari Primary School here have started to build, as their forebears built before them. The walls of several new classrooms were partially up in January—light-colored local stone roughly mortared—just a short walk from the existing school.

Just as parents constructed that hilltop building for grades 1-8 years ago, a new generation now wants a secondary school. It would start with a single grade or “form,” adding one a year until all four forms were represented.

Parents and others gather under a jacaranda tree outside Nkumari Primary School in Kenya to discuss the opening of a secondary school on the campus.

“A school must start,” insisted the headmaster of Nkumari Primary, Peter Kinoti Inoti, at a meeting of the supporters held over chicken stew in a primary classroom earlier this year. He reminded some 35 people that such schools were being started all over their area of central Kenya, and Nkumari must not be left behind. Indeed, the communities of two nearby primaries also had such projects under way.

The push for secondary schools in Kenya and elsewhere among the poorer countries of the world follows a widespread move toward free basic education for all. That goal was set in a high-level international meeting on education in 1990 and subsequently adopted by the United Nations as one of its Millennium Development Goals, with a deadline of 2015.

Children in developing countries have flooded into schools over the past decade and a half, bringing partial success toward meeting those aims and raising expectations that more students will proceed to the upper grades.

Equally, policymakers in poor and middle-income countries generally believe the chance to compete vigorously in a global economy is linked to secondary education, in which students get advanced information skills. They are joined in that belief by many development strategists.

Course Correction

In Kenya, making primary education free across the country was one of the first acts of President Mwai Kibaki when he came to power in 2003. That year, the number of primary students rose by some 1.5 million, packing some schools. (“Children Flood Kenyan Schools To Get a Free Education,” April 16, 2005)

But that good news has worsened the picture at the secondary level. Fewer than half the children who complete primary school move on to the nation’s roughly 4,000 secondary schools, many for want of places, according to the Kenyan Ministry of Education and regional education officials.

Enter the local efforts, which not only open more seats but also put the cost of secondary school within more parents’ reach. While a public boarding high school can cost Nkubu-area parents more than 30,000 Kenya shillings, or about $275, the new homegrown secondary schools will cost only a third as much, local administrators and teachers said.

Unfortunately, even that lower cost will strain many parents in this area, where coffee, with its tumbling prices, is the main cash crop. (The average annual income in Kenya is about $400.) And trying to create sound educational quality on such a small budget, even with the government paying for teachers, will be a challenge.

Still, parents’ and policymakers’ interest in education beyond the initial years is more and more matched by that of international donors and organizations, which for three decades have largely focused on the basic education that is widely thought to pay the greatest social dividends. That focus, many believe, helped correct an overemphasis on tertiary, or higher education in many formerly European-governed countries just after they won independence.

But it also led to a single-mindedness that education officials in developing countries decry. “If there is no way to continue [past basic education], people won’t come to school, and they won’t stay in school,” Uganda’s education minister, Kiddu Makubuya, told Education Today, a newsletter of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, last year.

Longtime advocates of secondary education share Mr. Makubuya’s concern.

“For a period of time, making primary education a priority was probably essential,” said Stephen F. Moseley, the president of the Academy for Educational Development, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that works abroad. “But now, we’re able to anticipate that some of the resources going into primary education could go into secondary,” he said, “and we’ll still need more.”

At least 37 countries worldwide have achieved universal basic education, and another 32 at least are likely to reach the goal by 2015, according to World Bank figures. And even in the 70 countries—most in South Asia and sub- Saharan Africa—where some young children will almost certainly continue without a formal education past that date, many more are attending and finishing primary school.

Yet the barriers to increasing high-quality secondary education are formidable. Education at that level costs on average several times what primary education does, experts say, in part because secondary teachers earn more and materials and equipment are more expensive. So if significantly more children enroll, budgets run out.

And in many countries what money there is is spent “inefficiently”—with rates for dropping out and repeating grades high, for instance. And in some, education suffers from corruption as well. Without improvements in these two areas, international donors are reluctant to make up the gap between what countries have and what they need.

“The system needs to function more efficiently,” said Jacob Bregman, an education specialist for the World Bank, speaking in a personal capacity. “Otherwise, you can’t expand it.”

Hard Choices

But increasing efficiency often means going against deeply held views, as well as special interests. For example, Mr. Bregman said, in French-speaking West Africa, teachers must often be convinced that student failure harms rather than helps the system. “They think a healthy dose of repetition and dropping out is improving the quality of those that last,” he explained.

What’s more, policymakers face hard choices between spending on basic schooling or on more advanced education. If quality or access at the primary level deteriorates, fewer children will be able to enter or succeed in the secondary grades. Higher education then becomes out of the question, curbing the number of teachers produced.

On the demand side of the equation, many families have difficulty both forgoing the labor of an older child and paying the fees often associated with secondary education. The government can’t foot the bill alone, and yet scholarships and other public subsidies are critical, too.

It’s a matter of perceived fairness, argued Cream Wright, the chief of education for the United Nations Children’s Fund and a native of Sierra Leone. “For the child who has earned good results and wants to get in, but can’t afford it, there must be some form of subsidy,” he maintained.

Experts advise that addressing those challenges requires rethinking some basics. “Instead of talking about ‘secondary ed,’ talk about postprimary education and training,” Mr. Wright suggested.

That way, technical training close to home with faster payoffs can be included among the options offered to young people, as long as it includes enough abstract content to prevent closing off educational opportunities in the future. Even a “classical” secondary education should be founded on a relevant curriculum, with information on socially important issues such as AIDS, many authorities say.

Likewise, alternative means of providing education that make use of distance-learning technologies, volunteers, or community spaces can reduce costs and give more youths a chance to learn. In Indonesia, for instance, printed study guides and regular study groups, plus face-to-face meetings with teachers from an associated school, have helped thousands master secondary-level studies.

Also, traditional schools can be reorganized, as when nearby institutions use the same resources, such as a science lab.

“Countries have developed all sorts of models,” Mr. Wright said. “Once people get a good-quality primary education, they want the next step.”

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