Has the UN’s Obsession with Primary Education Backfired?

In the light of my recent post, about the I Am Malala campaign, it was interesting to come across the intelligent and thoughtful article in this month’s Prospect Magazine by Clare Lockhart of the Institute for State Effectiveness. Clare believes that the UN’s obsession with primary education in its Millennium Development Goals has backfired.

The UN’s MDGs were set more than a decade ago, and the one that is closest to being met is the one on universal primary education, with around 88% of school-age children across the developing world in primary school (in 2010, up from 81% in 1999). Clare’s article argues that the focus on primary education has had the unintended consequence of skewing investment away from secondary education and vocational training, both vital instruments in achieving the continuing and growing needs of countries for:

….their next generation of doctors, nurses, engineers, accountants, and project managers….without secondary and tertiary education, a country cannot run its health, agriculture and financial systems….

And ironically, given the MDG’s rightful focus on the critical importance of education, this skewing effect has also led to:

….a shortfall of teachers to train the generation beyond them. Even maintaining primary education services, especially in the countries with growing populations, requires large numbers to be educated at secondary and vocational levels.

Clare is, of course, very careful to state that she does not want to see investment in secondary and tertiarty education at the expense of the primary sector. She is advocating a more balanced approach that recognises the need for continued and strategic investment in all key sectors. This balanced approach requires certain key questions to be asked, and answered:

  • What are the skills a society needs to develop and strengthen its public, private and civic sectors?
  • How can a country equip its next generation with the skills to meet those needs?
  • How can education and training policy balance the imperatives of stability, economics and civil inclusion?

There’s a lot to think about in this piece, but I think I am persuaded that the original set of MDGs failed to set a firm and sustainable foundation for the balanced approach that Clare favours – given that the successor goals are being debated right now, I would hope that these are issues that will be given due consideration.