March 12, 2013

Country Action: Do all youth have a fair shot at secondary school?

This post by Jody Heymann and Kristen McNeill was first published on the Global Partnership for Education website. CCIC is thankful for permission to re-publish.

Which countries around the world make education compulsory for 15-year-olds? How many countries in your region ensure that secondary school teachers are sufficiently trained? How many high- and low-income countries ensure that disabled children can attend school in the same classrooms as their non-disabled peers?  How many countries have prohibited discrimination in education for children of all ethnic groups? These are but a few of the many questions that must be answered to truly understand whether children have access to schools, whether they will receive a quality education, and whether it is a real possibility for children across all income groups and marginalized populations.

Before now, there has been a wealth of important information on educational policies and outcomes made available through detailed UN reports, country reports, NGO initiatives, and other sources. These have been a crucial resource. However, the voluminous and qualitative nature of much of the available information limited accessibility; it was much more suited for in-depth investigations of the situation in particular countries than broad-scale comparisons and identifications of which countries are leading the pack and which are falling behind.

For the past several years, we have been working on the Children’s Chances Initiative to make comparative information on education and other child policies easily accessible. Key results of this study on what countries are doing to make equal chances for children a reality are presented in a new report launched February 12th, entitled “Changing Children’s Chances.”

In terms of education, there is good news and bad news. Primary education has long been a priority for the global community, and rightfully so – it is an absolutely essential and foundational element of childhood. This global commitment has yielded important results. New data analyzed by our international team examining laws and policies in all UN member states around the world shows that in basic education the world has come a long way. The majority of countries in the world (166) have made primary education tuition-free. And in all but 15 countries, primary schooling is compulsory, with progress being seen across all regions. When net primary enrolment rates in sub-Saharan Africa jump from 56% to 73% in just eight years, and all but 8 countries globally now have public provision of special education to some degree for children with disabilities, such progress should be celebrated.

Yet, national action – and global goals – have not been set high enough to truly give all children a chance to succeed. When it comes to secondary education – often a minimum requirement for jobs providing a decent income – the picture our research presents does not show such cause for celebration. Some 38 countries charge tuition before the completion of secondary school, leaving secondary and higher education out of reach for many children in the poorest families. Looking beyond enrolment rates and accessibility, even those children who can currently attend secondary school may not be getting the most out of their education. In 48 countries teachers at the lower secondary level are required to have completed no higher than a secondary level of education themselves, and the same is true for upper secondary-school teachers in 30 countries. This leaves large numbers of youth being taught by instructors who have completed little more education than their students.

As with any area of children’s chances, the question of education cannot be solved in isolation. To truly ensure that all children have an equal chance in secondary school, governments also need to address the underlying social conditions that determine whether children are able to attend and continue with schooling. A child’s chance of going to school is hugely affected by whether their parents can earn enough to support the family without resorting to child labour to make ends meet.  When children are needed as income-earners, they will often have to drop out of school, especially in the absence of laws that protect them from long hours of labour. In 103 countries children can be working full-time under the age of 16, not old enough to allow for the completion of high school; in 118 countries children can work more than 6 hours on school days at age 15 or younger.  When girls are married young, school dropout becomes much more likely; nonetheless, girls can be married below the age of 18 in 99 countries (while boys can be married under 18 in 64 countries). And among these, 42 countries do not protect girls from marriage at 15 or younger.

To find out more about how countries are performing on education and other areas key to children’s full and healthy development, visit You will find over 100 global maps showing where tuition is still charged for primary and secondary school, where boys and girls have equal rights in education, where children are legally protected from discrimination in education based on religion, ethnicity, or disability, where children are sheltered from child labour and early marriage, and many more.

Clearly much more action is required on the part of nations if all children are to have equal chances – and this action is feasible, as demonstrated by the many countries at every income level that have already taken important steps forward. We know what works and what needs to be done– there are no more excuses for inaction.
Jody Heymann and Kristen McNeill are co-authors of Children’s Chances: How Countries can Move from Surviving to Thriving (Harvard University Press, 2013). 



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