In Ethiopia, we have every reason to be very proud of the progress we have made in education over the past decade. In 1999, just 37 per cent of children were going to primary school. By 2011 this had risen to 87 per cent — one of the fastest increases in history.
We still have a long way to go, but thanks to this expansion of primary schooling, the share of our young people who are literate has also increased, from 34 per cent in 2000 to 52 per cent in 2011. How did we manage all this?
This rapid and equitable expansion of access to free education has been enabled through a sustained government-led effort to reduce poverty and expand the public education system by creating an effective balance between supply-side policies (such as the construction of schools in remote areas) and complementary policies to stimulate demand (fee abolition and mother-tongue instruction).
This has been backed by substantial increases in national education expenditure and aid to the sector, which doubled between 2000 and 2010, to 25 per cent, as well as improved planning and implementation capacity at all levels.
The shift to greater regional and local autonomy has helped increase community participation and led to more widespread popular recognition of the importance of education for boys and girls.
These encouraging figures are from the 2013/4 Education for All Global Monitoring Report — the world’s most authoritative survey of education progress, whose global launch I am honoured to have hosted in Addis Ababa.
On the international scale, however, the report conveys some sombre findings.
Worldwide, 250 million children are not learning to read, write and count, whether they are in school or not, because their education is of such poor quality. This is costing $129 billion a year — the money spent on poor education that fails to give children the basic skills they need.
It is often claimed that getting more children into school inevitably means lowering the quality of education. But the 2013/4 Global Monitoring Report shows that it is possible to increase access to education while also making sure that children actually learn when they are in school.
The most striking evidence comes from the very region that is often seen as lagging behind – sub-Saharan Africa. Including, of course, Ethiopia.
This balance is particularly impressive given that children attending school for the first time are more likely to be disadvantaged — to have experienced malnutrition and poverty or to live in remote rural areas. In addition, their parents are often illiterate and unable to help them with their studies.
To benefit fully from education’s incredible power to transform lives, however, all of us in sub-Saharan Africa need to concentrate on the further steps that will improve education quality at the same time as we are getting more children into school.
Above all, that means improving the quality of our teaching, especially for the disadvantaged. We need to make sure that measures to recruit, train, deploy and retain teachers are designed to give disadvantaged children the same chances as other children.
New recruits must reflect the diversity of the children they are going to teach, for example. Sometimes that means recruiting more female teachers.
Teachers also need good training that equips them to meet the needs of children from a wide range of backgrounds – including classroom experience, and access to mentors once they start teaching.
Teachers should be allocated to areas serving disadvantaged children, such as remote and rural areas. Incentives such as housing or allowances can help draw good teachers to such areas.
Incentives are also needed to retain the best teachers in the profession — including an attractive career path that offers opportunities for promotion.
In the end, an education system is only as good as its teachers — that is why we need to give them every bit of support that we can.
In Ethiopia, although we still have a long way to go, we have also made huge progress in a very short time. The movement to get more children into school is unstoppable.
Now our big challenge is to give those children the best teaching possible. We know which road to take – so let’s take it together, for the sake of this generation and generations to come.
Ethiopia aims to make a significant contribution to this process in its newly announced role as one of the champion countries for the UN Secretary General’s Global Education First Education Initiative – an honour that recognises my government’s commitment to the Education for All goals and the Millennium Development Goals.
In 2014, we will host a policy forum to address strategies for strengthening teacher-training institutions in Africa.
Hailemariam Desalegn is Prime Minister of Ethiopia