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Evaluation report

1998 Global: Education for All: Policy Lessons from High-Achieving Countries

Author: Mehrotra, S. ; UNICEF NYHQ

Executive summary


In the 1950s and 1960s great strides were made in the provision of basic services in the majority of developing countries. However, some of them far exceeded the pace of advance in social outcome indicators than the majority of developing countries. Ten of those countries, drawn from each of the major developing regions of the world - Cuba, Costa Rica and Barbados; Botswana, Mauritius and Zimbabwe; Kerala state (India) and Sri Lanka; and Malaysia and the Republic of Korea - were examined in UNICEF studies. Many of these countries were seen as 'basket cases' at the beginning of the post-colonial period - including Botswana, Korea and Mauritius, which are all middle-income countries today. Longevity and education levels - two essential indicators of human development - have increased in these countries much more than in other countries in their region.

Purpose / Objective

The studies addressed the questions: why and how were they able to achieve these high levels of longevity and educational levels early in their development process? This paper attempts to synthesise the common elements of education policy which emerged from these studies. Secondarily, it also addresses the question: Are there any lessons for other developing countries from the experience of the countries which managed to achieve UPE early on, especially for countries in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where Education for All is very far from being achieved?


This paper draws upon case studies of countries which universalised primary schooling early in their development process and rapidly increased secondary enrolments thereafter: Sri Lanka and Kerala state (India) from South Asia; Republic of Korea and Malaysia in East Asia; Botswana, Mauritius and Zimbabwe in Sub-Saharan Africa; and Barbados, Costa Rica and Cuba in Latin America and the Caribbean. The ten countries are drawn from almost every developing region, for reasons of geographic representation, and to permit relevant comparisons to be made with other countries in the region. These countries are high achievers not in any absolute sense, but in a relative sense, i.e. in comparison to other countries in the same region and with similar income levels. We wanted for purposes of regional, and global advocacy, to be able point to what is possible, given the circumstances, in every region. In selecting countries we excluded oil-rich countries, in order not to unnecessarily bias our results.

The studies examine the common elements of social, and specifically, education policy among these high achievers, and also evaluates the policy lessons for other developing countries from the experience of these countries. The supply and demand side factors which help in explaining this success are compared with the situation prevailing in the rest of the developing world.

Key Findings and Conclusions

Primary education was the responsibility of the state in all selected countries, while there were considerable differences among high-achievers when it comes to secondary education. On the other hand, the percentage of students enrolled in private schools in other developing countries was not insignificant, especially in Africa and Latin America.

Another common feature in the selected high-achieving countries on the supply-side was the high public expenditures on education - both as a proportion of GDP and total public expenditure - relative to the regional average. Perhaps more importantly, a common feature of the expenditure pattern on education in these countries was the equity of allocation by level of education, compared to other countries in the region to which they belong. The high-achievers have tended to spend more on primary education as a percentage of per capita income and a lower share of education expenditure went to tertiary education than other countries in the region.

Several means were also adopted to keep unit costs low and internal efficiency relatively high. But while keeping unit costs low, minimum standards of quality were maintained in the high-achieving countries. There is evidence that the financing of recurrent expenditures for primary schooling allowed quality to be maintained in the high-achieving countries as access expanded.

On the demand side, the reduction of costs to parents seems to have been a primary reason for the rapid expansion of primary enrolment in the selected countries. In all countries (except Korea) primary schooling has been entirely free of tuition fees. In many cases, even the indirect costs have been progressively reduced. Apart from private cost, another family-related factor that should be taken into account is the language of instruction. In the early years the mother tongue was used as the medium of instruction at the primary level. Contrast this to the situation prevailing in most francophone and lusophone African countries, where the colonial language is still the medium of instruction even in the earliest years of school. As regards girls' enrolment, the expansion of physical facilities and proximity to schools laid the basis for the participation of girls. Moreover, an important underlying factor was the high proportion of female teachers in schools in the selected countries. Female teachers give parents of girl-children a sense of security as well as provide a role model for girls in the community. In countries which are furthest from achieving education for all the policies and interventions adopted by the high-achievers have tended to be ignored.


Other countries cannot replicate the experience of the selected countries in toto, in the sense that for each selected country, the education achievement was the result of a complex interaction between historical and institutional factors specific to the country, and policy interventions of the kind we have discussed. While contextual factors cannot be replicated or substituted, policies can be.

While none of the policy lessons emerging from the experience of these countries may be new, the point is that in the very countries which are furthest from EFA the policies and interventions adopted by the high-achievers outlined here have tended to be ignored. Among the policies implemented in the selected countries, the ones which have been ignored most are the following:

- On the supply side, the equity of public expenditure on education by level, which is the basis for ensuring an effective package of essential inputs, and thus ensuring quality of schools and effectiveness of learning, has been neglected. Second, keeping unit costs low as coverage expands has been especially ignored in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in West Africa - where unit costs (per pupil and per graduate) remain among the highest in the world, and enrolment rates among the lowest. Third, adequate levels of expenditure on materials, both for teachers as well as for students, has been neglected, while teacher salaries have continued to absorb most of the recurrent expenditure of the government on primary education.

- On the demand side, while the policy lesson from the high-achievers is that the cost to parents has to be minimised, there may be evidence that over the eighties, out-of-pocket costs of sending a child to school, especially in Africa, may have risen. Given the increasing importance of the World Bank, both as a source of finance for basic education as well as its role in the policy dialogue on education, it is regrettable that only very recently has the Bank come out with statements to specifically point out that cost recovery at the primary level will adversely affect demand (World Bank, 1996). Meanwhile, in the 1980s GER actually declined on average in Africa.

Second, on the mother tongue issue, it is only very recently, in the last two years or so, that a consensus has emerged in West African countries in particular that the mother tongue should be the medium of instruction at the primary level, especially in the first grades.

Third, on measures to encourage girls' enrolment, while in India there is now a move to increase female teachers in the northern states where girls' enrolments are among the lowest in the country, in the rest of South Asia, and certainly most of Africa, this remains an issue which deserves much greater attention from policy-makers than has been given it hitherto.


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