Is access a bigger problem than learning?

Susy Ndaruhutse

On 3 February, Susy Ndaruhutse, Head of International Development and Education, was part of an education panel at the Oxford Forum for International Development (Oxfid), the largest student-led development conference in Europe.

The theme of the conference was “‘Piecing the puzzle’ through connecting new and old development approaches” and the day included keynotes speeches and a series of thematic panels. There were three of us speaking on the education panel – Sarah Duggan from Theirworld, Purna Shrestha from VSO and me from EdDevTrust. The education panel looked at the fact that many children continue to leave school without having achieved basic literacy and numeracy, with some children still not attending school at all.

MDG 2 vs SDG 4

We were asked to reflect on the shift between Millennium Development Goal 2 (MDG 2) which stipulated that we must ‘ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling’ and Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) which has more of a focus on quality and learning. The key question we were asked to speak on was whether given that we have not fully achieved MDG 2, should we try and make sure that everyone has access to primary education before we focus on the quality of that education (SDG 4)? Is access a bigger problem than learning?


Our panel discussion was well attended with nearly 100 students in the room. Each speaker gave an overview of their perspective on the issue and then we took questions from the chair and the room. While we each had a different angle on the problem, we were all in agreement that access vs learning is a false dichotomy: we need to focus on both. With 387 million children of primary school age not learning the minimum competences in reading and maths and 56% of all children unlikely to achieve minimum proficiency levels by the time they should be completing primary education, there is a clear learning challenge. However, there is also an access challenge with 61 million children of primary school age being out-of-school and therefore not accessing any formal learning. 

No or low levels of learning results in low levels of skills which has implications for the future employment potential and future economic growth of countries. As a result:

  • Many people will remain in subsistence agriculture or low skilled informal sector jobs
  • There will be an insufficient number and quality of teachers to radically change learning outcomes
  • There is a need for 21st-century skills which are ‘higher order’ and require functional literacy and numeracy as a foundation; low levels of skills without a solid foundation on which to develop 21st-century skills will have negative impact on rates of economic growth leading to lower national and global prosperity
  • High numbers of out-of-school children in countries affected by conflict and weak governance cause spillover effects into other countries putting greater strains on other countries’ education systems and their stability

A multi-faceted challenge

Addressing the global education challenge is multi-faceted and requires a response beyond that of just providing more schools and better teachers; there is also a need to address barriers to children accessing school regularly – poverty, unfamiliar language of instruction, fear of sexual harassment, etc. A further challenge is that it is estimated that between 35 and 50 per cent of children of primary school age who are out of school live in conflict-affected countries. Addressing their educational needs cannot simply be fixed by looking at the education system alone – it needs political will, funding and an approach that is linked to issues that go beyond the education sector. 

With a fantastically engaged student audience, we had discussions about a range of issues around teachers, language of instruction, data, marginalised groups, early childhood development (including the important of good nutrition) and the role of wider infrastructure projects in opening up more remote communities to education. We concluded the discussion by reiterating the need to focus on both access and quality, building on the gains made under MDG2 but recognising that it is an unfinished job and it is always going to be challenging reaching the most marginalised with education so we should not wait to tackle quality until we have got everyone into primary school.