International

Next Up for Developing Nations: Secondary Schooling

By Bess Keller — July 26, 2005 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Related Tags:

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. f we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

International Opinion Why Other Countries Keep Outperforming Us in Education (and How to Catch Up)
Money from the American Rescue Plan could be our last chance to build the school system we need, writes Marc Tucker.
Marc Tucker
5 min read
A student climbs stacks of books to reach the top
Tatyana Pivovarova/iStock/Getty Images Plus
International Global Test Finds Digital Divide Reflected in Math, Science Scores
New data from the 2019 Trends in International Math and Science Study show teachers and students lack digital access and support.
3 min read
Image of data.
iStock/Getty
International Pre-COVID Learning Inequities Were Already Large Around the World
A new international benchmarking highlights gaps in training for digital learning and other supports that could deepen the challenge for low-income schools during the pandemic.
4 min read
International Part of Global Trend, 1 in 3 U.S. High Schoolers Felt Disconnected From School Before Pandemic
UNESCO's annual report on global education progress finds countries need to make more effort to include marginalized students, particularly in the United States.
4 min read