12 August 2013

Will education be the Achilles heel of growth economies?

By Caine Rolleston, Education Researcher on the ‘Young Lives’ study at the University of Oxford. 

Lack of skills is one of the biggest problems faced by the swelling youth populations of emerging economies. Yet education is going to be crucial for growth to be more inclusive in countries like India - where nearly half the population is under 25 - and arguably even more so for fast-growing African countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia and Angola where under-25s make up four-fifths of the population.

Today, August 12, is International Youth Day and communities across the globe are joining together to celebrate the energy and potential of the under-25s. But according to UN figures, more that 120 million of the world’s 15 to 24 year-olds still the lack the basic literacy skills needed to achieve their growing aspirations.

Despite huge strides in school enrolment across the developing world, educational attainment is not keeping pace with economic growth and few young people are attaining even a fraction of the skills considered fundamental in advanced economies.

India’s large pool of English-speaking graduates is undoubtedly part of its engine of growth, but the majority of Indian pupils are still failing to learn even the most basic concepts in maths by the end of elementary school. For many, progress stalls after only one or two years in the classroom and many more drop out of school with little to show for it. 

The numbers are staggering, given that a third of India’s 1.2 billion people are under 15, but the problem is by no means insurmountable. India and Vietnam are neck-and-neck in per capita income, ranking 126th and 128th respectively, yet few pupils in Vietnam leave school without basic skills.

A new large-scale survey by Oxford University’s Young Lives research team found 94% of 10-year-olds in Vietnam could add four digit numbers, 85% could subtract fractions and 81% could find x in a simple equation. This contrasts with India, where a nationwide survey by India’s ASER research centre reports 47% of ten year olds unable to add two-digit numbers, and as many as 68% of grade three children in government schools unable to read a test designed for first-year pupils.

Vietnam has reaped the benefits of focusing squarely on the basics. In the period of around eight months covered by a survey of 3,500 grade five pupils, both children and teachers were absent on average for less than two days of school. Similar studies in India put rates of teacher absence among the highest in the world at around 20–25% and pupil absence often higher. Pupils’ poor attendance is surely not unrelated to the absenteeism of their teachers. And pupils’ low skills are also reflected in those of their teachers, one study in India finding only a quarter of teachers being able solve a fifth grade-level percentage problem.

More than 96% of pupils in Vietnam had core textbooks for their personal use, 85% spent more than an hour a day on homework and 87% reported reading books outside of school. Teachers reported being evaluated six or more times a year and they assessed their pupils regularly. Few teachers, including those working in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, performed poorly in assessments of their knowledge for teaching grade five.

While disadvantaged pupils in Vietnam score lower in curriculum tests, they make good progress during the school year, catching up on curricular competencies. In India, however, there is little progress among poor performers.

Inclusive growth means growth linked to employment and skills. And skills for future labour markets depend on the foundations of literacy and numeracy being laid down in elementary school. Failure to deliver quality learning will turn out to be a massive lost opportunity, both for future generations and for further economic growth. And investment in universal school enrolment will have been a huge waste of time and money if kids do not learn.

Growth through Quality Jobs and Investment is one of the three key themes of September’s G20 Summit indicating recognition of the important role that human capital will play in future years. G20 leaders must acknowledge that the route to developing human capital needs to include investment in across-the-board improvements to school teaching standards. A skilled and educated workforce should be central to every country’s economic strategy and is essential for the reduction of poverty and inequality.

Young Lives new Vietnam School Survey results, available from 12 August, can be downloaded at www.younglives.org.uk/publications