Too embarrassed to go to school

Click to read the report

I stopped reading a biography of Einstein when the author explained that the Jews, like the Scots, placed a high value on education. “Fiddlesticks!” I muttered, “Everybody places a high value on education”. That was a few years ago. Last week, I had a doubt. A candidate in the US mid-term elections boasted in a campaign video that she didn’t go to Yale. (She didn’t go to Washington either, but that’s another story).

The Tunisian grocer across from my place was perplexed by this attitude too. He works from 9 in the morning until 11 at night, six days a week, to give his children a better life, and that includes as good an education as possible. He also sends money back to his family in Tunisia to pay for private tuition.

He’s not alone. As the latest UN Human Development Report points out, despite progress in providing universal access to education, there are huge disparities based on ability to pay. The good news is that the world’s population is better educated than ever before. In 1960, an average 15 year-old had four years of schooling. By 2010, this had doubled globally and more than tripled in developing countries, from 1.9 years to 6.4. The gender gap has been narrowing too, and has even been reversed in some cases: in the Arab States, there are now 132 women in higher education for every 100 men.

The improvement is associated with increased public funding in much of the world, up from 3.9% of GDP in 1970 to 5.1% in 2006 (and 1% a century ago). However, as you’d expect, these averages hide enormous differences. In sub-Saharan Africa, average state spending per student is $184 a year, eight times less than in Latin America, and forty times less than in developed countries.

The UN also point out that higher spending and enrolment don’t necessarily mean better schooling. For instance, grade 8 students in Indonesia scored just as well in mathematics tests as those in many Latin American countries, despite having only an eighth of the spending per capita.

Still, money can make a big difference. One of the downsides of expanded enrolments is that schools may not have the resources to cope with the extra numbers, hence the need for private lessons and a widening gap between students from different backgrounds. The UN report also stresses the social barriers to education poor students have to overcome. One 11 year-old boy described how he dropped out of school because he was too embarrassed to go bare foot after the teacher humiliated him for coming without shoes.

Similar trends are seen more generally outside education. The world population is healthier and wealthier on average than when the first Human Development Report appeared in 1990, but inequalities have been growing within and across countries, and some indicators have even got worse in certain areas.

Useful links

Meeting of education ministers at the OECD, 4-5 November

The educationtoday blog has contributions from particpants in the ministerial meeting

OECD Education Policy Forum: Investing in skills for the 21st century

Patrick Love

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  1. Julie - 06/11/2010 Reply

    Thanks for this. At the OECD Education Policy Forum this last week, keynote speaker Charles Leadbeater was actually making a strong statement that big budgets do not always lead to big outputs. He clearly believes that good education results can (and should) come from places other than public spending. He cited cases in India and elsewhere where little money has not prevented innovation, motivation, and quality learning. For more, see “Learning from the Extremes” on Charles Leadbeater’s site at

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