This podcast looks at how even disadvantaged kids in Vietnam are educationally years ahead of their counterparts in India, despite per capita GDP being broadly the same in both countries.
Amanda Barnes: The Young Lives study has been following the progress of thousands of children in the developing world. And you’ve got some new findings from a survey of ten year-old pupils in Vietnam. What did the Young Lives study find out about education in Vietnam?
Jo Boyden: Young Lives has established that pupil performance is really exceptional in some very important ways. Around 19 out of every 20 ten year-olds, for example, can add four -digit numbers. At the same time 85% can subtract fractions and 81% are able to find X in a simple equation.
This is partly to do with the school systems but it’s also to do with the fact that there’s a strong focus in children’s home lives on their education. So out of school hours around about 85% spend more than an hour a day on homework and 87% report reading books outside of school.
At the same time the education system in Vietnam is relatively equitable and this means that poorer children really get the same deal as those who are better-off than they are. And they are therefore not less advantaged in the school system.
AB: That’s really interesting. How does Vietnam compare with India?
I think perhaps the most dramatic thing we can say is that the best-performing children in India, and in this case Young Lives is looking at the state of Andhra Pradesh in particular, don’t do as well as those children who perform worst in Vietnam.
So you see an enormous disparity between the two countries. And what I think this can be translated into in terms of families’ and children’s responses is that disappointment in the standards in state schools has resulted in a dramatic increase in the proportion of eight year-olds being educated in low-fee private schools: the figure almost having doubled between 2002 and 2009.
These kinds of findings are actually reported by other studies. For example, India’s ASER research centre found that 47% of ten year-olds were unable to add even two-digit numbers in India. And 68% of grade three children in government schools couldn’t read a task designed for first-year pupils. Research from the University of California also found that only the top 10% of school students are at the age-appropriate level and the bottom 10% appear to learn nothing in school at all.
So I think the point is that India really short-changing it’s children in terms of education.
AB: Why did you decide to compare Vietnam with India?
JB: Young Lives is studying in four different countries. But the reason we compare Vietnam with India is because both are Asian countries and both have experienced dramatic rates of growth over recent years. This of course means that there’s enormous potential to do something about education to make sure that education systems are strong. At the same time, they have similar GDP levels and the population of young people roughly about 50% of the total.
AB: The International Community’s united behind the Millennium Development Goal of achieving primary education for all by 2015. How good is the primary school learning in other developing countries that you’ve looked at?
JB: Unfortunately Young Lives has found that children generally are receiving much poorer quality education than is the hope of the International Community. So in other words the trends in India are much more typical than are the trends in Vietnam. And the early focus, which was a very appropriate one at the time, was getting children into school in the first place, which meant basically looking at resources and facilities, setting up schools, training teachers and so on. But I think the focus now needs to shift.
We need to be thinking far more about the quality of education that children receive, and the quality of teachers. The capacity of schools themselves becomes absolutely crucial.
AB: Can you give examples of particularly bad practices that you’ve seen in classrooms?
JB: I think very often teachers are using learning by rote, which means that really children are often just copying off blackboards and they’re trying to memorise facts. There’s much less focus on critical thinking, on analytical skills and skills like that, which are very important for children’s future employment. But I think also one of the other problems in schools is work that is very abstracted, if you like, from children’s everyday lives. So it doesn’t necessarily bear much relation to everyday experiences.
I think that another issue is that we need to able to make sure that schools are addressing children’s actual everyday lives, their aspirations and their hopes and not just teaching narrowly academic subjects.
AB: Well despite their dysfunctional education systems, the ecomomies that we’ve talked about have had very fast-growing economies in recent years. How much does it really matter if young people are coming out of schools without really reaching fantastic education standards?
JB: I think education is probably the single-most vital element, in the modern world, in terms of how we strengthen our economies, how we build sustainable economies and economies that can grow and sustain their populations. And I think the mismatch between much of the current education that’s on offer and what we actually need for our future societies is actually a really grave problem. It’s not just a grave problem, in other words, for children and their families, but it’s a problem for society at large.
If education isn’t relevant, for example, to the kinds of jobs that are going to be available to children, or if doesn’t actually raise them to skill-level that enables them to be able to do those jobs, then education is a massive dis-service to children, their families, communities, and to society at large. It’s already very clear that employers are growing very frustrated in many countries where they can’t actually recruit people with the kinds of skills that they need for their work.
But also we don’t even know really, at this point in time, what future needs will be for children’s education. The global economy is changing very dramatically. Technology is bringing incursions into all kinds of areas of production and marketing and so on. There are going to be new requirements for children to develop new skills.
I think education systems have to be much more flexible. They have to be much more responsive to the environments that children are growing up into. And they need to be much more relevant to the current world as well as the future world that children will be living in.
AB: Well, with more children in school, but not necessarily learning all that much, what kind of impact is this having on kids’ futures if they are coming out of school not having learnt very much?
JB: I think one of the most important things to bear in mind is that Young Lives is a study of children who are mostly from quite poor households. One of the things that means is that their families aren’t themselves necessarily very well educated. So they’re not necessarily very well aware of what a good school is and what is needed in terms of education in order to do well in the job market when they grow up. So you have a situation where families are very keen that their children do well at school but they don’t necessarily have the information and knowledge that is needed in order to be able to ensure that actually happens.
At the same time, in many of the communities that the Young Lives study children are living in, the quality of the schooling is particularly bad. It’s doing very badly by children and children are becoming increasingly aware of this.
They begin to see when they repeat grades consistently, increasingly finding themselves in classes with children who are much younger than they are, for example, because they’ve dropped behind their peers. Or when they find that they still can’t do the basic things that they ought to be able to when they reach a particular age, then there’s a growing sense that these schools are not working for children. Indeed in Ethiopia we have an example of a girl who actually reviewed her performance when she reached about age 15 and she just found that she was just not doing well enough. So she made the decision to go back to her family and say I’ve got to leave this school and go to a better school.
So what we are beginning to see in this situation is an increasing number of children whose families, or the children themselves, are deciding they need to shift to better schools. This might be schools that are genuinely better or it might be actually schools that are just perceived to be better.
One of tragedies is that families are often making enormous sacrifices for their children to be able to go to school. And sometimes the choices that they’re making about schools are really, if you like, quite superficial. It might be about better quality food for instance. That’s often mentioned in Anhra Pradesh where children often talk about going to that school rather than this school because it has better food. In other words, choices are not necessarily about the real quality of education.
At the same time these choices and these raised expectations are really driving families to make enormous personal sacrifices. So we have examples of families who’ve sold land, sold their cattle, or other belongings in order for children to be able to attend school. This might be because children are not able to work when they are attending school, which means that the demand on the family economy is much greater. Or it might be because families are choosing to pay for their children to go to private schools where there are low fees charged, as in the case of India.
When this is happening we are seeing these financial sacrifices being made, but actually the returns may not be that great. And indeed as children grow older and they enter their teens and mid-teens for example, there’s an increasing sense that actually they should be leaving school in order to resume their work responsibilities in order to be able to support their families.
We also see many children, the main problem for whom is intermittent attendance more than anything else. So they might go to school, but actually only one day out of a week or just several weeks in the term. This is because they can’t actually sustain their work responsibilities, which are important for their families, and at the same time sustain their education.
AB: So with this sort of dash for education it must mean that there’s quite a significant amount of social change with more and more kids being actually at school rather than helping in the fields and things like that. What difference do you think that’s made to families?
JB: I think we have more and more children in school, definitely. In three of our study countries, Peru, Vietnam and Andhra Pradesh in India we have found around 97% of 8-year-olds attending school. This doesn’t mean to say actually that they’re attending full time. But it means that they are enrolled and going at least some of the time. Now that of course is both a direct cost to the families because usually they have to pay for equipment and the might have to pay for uniforms. And they might have to pay for transport in order for their children to get to and from school. So that is about a financial cost, but it’s also about the opportunity cost associated with children no longer being able to fulfill what were previously quite important roles within the family.
What we find now is that children are trying to juggle both their work and their school. So they do try and continue contributing to their households. But this is actually very hard for them to sustain in light of the demands of their schooling. Or what we may find is that they actually performing progressively less well over time at school, and not necessarily able to do their homework.
AB: How do you think it is going to affect future economies if children are going to school and hoping that they’re going to get a massive amount of skills, but in the end maybe that’s not going to be the outcome? But at the same time those fast-growing economies are looking to develop a more skills-based economy where they’re going to need more cognitive skills. How do you think the education standards are going to affect those outcomes?
JB: I think that’s an extremely difficult question to answer. One of the most important concerns that I have is that even though economies are changing and a higher level of skills, the bigger challenge might be that actually although they require more skills they might require fewer workers than in the past. So in developing countries we’re shifting from labour-intensive to technology-intensive processes.
This really means in the long run that there is a need for fewer workers. So children may continue to aspire to high education because they see education as a form of entry into better employment or into professional jobs and so on. But it’s not clear that those jobs will actually be available in the future in the way that they hope.
I think the other thing that is a major concern is that still your social background, your ethnicity, your caste, where you come from: these factors make a big difference in terms of who gets access to which jobs. So even if we do have more meritocratic education systems that are a better quality and more relevant to the modern economies, it’s still not guaranteed that children from say low castes or from ethnic minority communities are going to be able to access the jobs that are available. And we already see that children from those minority groups fare less well in education systems and are also more likely to drop out early. So I suspect that in future that kind of social disadvantage will actually get translated into the labour market and the structuring of the labour market.
AB: Well donors and education ministries have been spending a lot of money on pursuing the goal of universal education. So are you saying the money’s going to waste if kids are coming out with little to show for it, or are you saying that it might not make that much difference in the long run anyway.
JB: I think the investment in education has actually been crucial. And I think that the next stage of investment in education does need to be somewhat different. It does actually need to be much more focused on quality and relevance than it has been. This however is a much bigger challenge than people tend to appreciate because what is good quality and what works for children in one country or one context may not apply to other countries or other contexts. So for example, teacher/pupil ratios are really important in some countries, as in the UK for instance, where it’s very important that you have a small number of children to each teacher. But that may not be the case elsewhere where it’s been found that that’s not such an issue.
So the quality issue is very specific to particular countries and it depends also on the objectives of education of those countries, the curriculum and whole approach to education and the philosophy of education in those countries. And so I think that’s where the challenge of donor activity really is going to be in the next few decades. It’s about how do we assess quality and how do we assess pupil’s performance in relation to that quality in different country contexts? And how do we invest smartly in improving quality for children?
AB: So to get back to the exceptional country, Vietnam: Do you think that other countries have something to learn about the way they do things and their success rate?
JB: Very much so. I think that in Vietnam we see a system where teacher commitment is absolutely fundamental. Where there is an assumption of equity across the board. It doesn’t always work of course in all cases, but in the main it really is functioning very well in Vietnam. And of course there’s a strong focus in families and communities on education as well.
I think the Vietnam government is increasingly concerned to ensure that education does serve the economy. Vietnam is actually quite worried about its competitive edge in the global market. It’s very worried for instance about competition from China. It’s very much an export-led economy and it does need to ensure that children are able to learn the skills that are needed for high-quality goods to be exported in the future.
Vietnam does face its own challenges, but I think it’s starting from a much better base: a base of equity and of relatively uniform quality. And that’s what we really need to see achieved in other parts of the world.
B: What do you think donors and governments need to be doing now to make kids aren’t going to school for nothing
JB: I think they need to be doing quite a lot more research that actually does help them to understand how to target their investments most effectively. I think they need to be doing a lot more to upgrade the quality of teacher training in particular, but also to focus on governance issues. We need to be sure that schools are much more accountable to children.
We need to be sure that teachers are actually present in schools and that there is a proper monitoring system. And I think that maybe that would involve perhaps much more parental involvement through parent-teacher mechanisms, enabling parents to have greater scrutiny over what’s going on in the school. But generally I think what one’s talking about much more investment in what schools are trying to achieve for children in the long term.
AB: That was Professor Jo Boyden from the Young Lives study at Oxford University. Jo Boyden, thank you very much for talking to Pod Academy.