The global demand for secondary education has risen exponentially, says a new United Nations report, which adds that governments, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, are having a hard time keeping up and many children are being left out.
The 2011 Global Education Digest, released today by the Institute for Statistics of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), says there are only enough seats for 36 per cent of children who want to enrol in secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa.
“There can be no escape from poverty without a vast expansion of secondary education,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. “This is a minimum entitlement for equipping youth with the knowledge and skills they need to secure decent livelihoods in today’s globalized world.”
She added that “an educated population is a country’s greatest wealth,” and that the inequalities presented in the report, especially in relation to girls’ exclusion from secondary education, have enormous implications for the achievement of development targets, from child and maternal health and HIV prevention to environmental security.
Globally, secondary schools have been accommodating almost 100 million more students each decade, with the total number growing by 60 per cent between 1990 and 2009, says to UNESCO. With more and more children attending and completing primary-level education, demand for places in secondary education has risen by leaps and bounds.
Yet, the agency adds, a child in the last grade of primary school only has at best a 75 per cent chance of making the transition to lower secondary school in about 20 countries, the majority of which are in sub-Saharan Africa. The region also has a shortage of secondary school teachers.
At the same time, sub-Saharan Africa has made the greatest gains of all regions, with gross enrolment ratios rising from 28 per cent to 43 per cent for lower secondary and from 20 per cent to 27 per cent for upper secondary education between 1999 and 2009.
“Nevertheless, more than 21.6 million children of lower secondary school age remain excluded from education across the region and many will never even spend a day in school,” states UNESCO.
Girls are the first to suffer from this inequality, the report says. In sub-Saharan Africa, the enrolment ratio for girls in lower secondary education is 39 per cent compared to 48 per cent for boys.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in which the gender disparities against girls are getting worse at the upper secondary level, with 8 million boys enrolled compared to only 6 million girls, according to the report.
Girls also face significant barriers in South and West Asia, although the situation is improving. About 35 million girls were enrolled in lower secondary education in 2009, with the female gross enrolment ratio reaching 69 per cent compared to 53 per cent in 1999.
The prospects for girls have been improving in other regions such as East Asia and the Pacific, where the lower secondary gross enrolment ratio for girls grew from 75 per cent to 91 per cent between 1999 and 2009.
Significant improvements have also been made in the Arab States, with the female gross enrolment ratio for lower secondary education rising from 67 per cent to 82 per cent over the same period.
Across the region, girls are also more likely than boys to complete lower secondary education in three-quarters of countries with available data. However, challenges remain at the upper secondary level, where there are enough school places for just 47 per cent of girls and 49 per cent of boys of upper secondary school age to enrol, states the report.
“All of these data underscore a central message: secondary education is the next great challenge,” states Hendrik van der Pol, Director of UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics.
“According to the Digest, about one third of the world’s children live in countries where lower secondary education is formally considered to be compulsory but the laws are not respected. We need to translate the commitment into reality.”
Albert Motivans, Head of Education Indicators and Data Analysis at the Montreal-based Institute, said that even though much attention has been paid to improving the coverage and quality of primary education, there is now a greater recognition of the vital role of secondary education, especially for development.
“In many ways, secondary education is a bridge for young people from the world of school to the world of work, or a bridge between primary education and continuing higher education,” he told a news conference at UN Headquarters.
It is also important at the societal level, with important benefits for societies and economies, he added. “Secondary education helps support a more skilled workforce. This can help lead to poverty reduction and economic growth goals. It helps to support a population which is healthier and which participates more actively in society. And thus, secondary education also acts as a kind of a bridge at the society level, from one level of development to the next.”