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Report questions focus of DfID spending on education

Finances & Budgets, Teacher salary

Funding from the UK government to support primary education in developing countries has helped increase pupil enrolment rates, but has had little impact on raising attainment levels or lowering absenteeism, according to a report published today.

The National Audit Office (NAO) report found that, since 2001, aid money from the Department for International Development (DfID) has helped the department’s 22 priority countries make significant progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goal to achieve universal primary education and gender equality in schools. But the money has not improved the quality of education, reduced drop-out rates, or sufficiently monitored teachers’ pay levels, which typically take up 90% of the education budget in developing countries.

The report recommended that money be better targeted towards improving pupil attendance and attainment, monitoring school performance and levels of teachers pay, and supporting functional inspection programmes.

The report comes two days after the international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, announced a review of where and how DfID spends its £2.9bn bilateral (government to government) aid budget. The department is expected to focus resources on fewer countries. Since taking over at DfID in May, Mitchell has promised greater value for money on aid spending.

At present, DfID is among the largest funders of primary education, alongside the World Bank and the Netherlands.

The NAO report noted that the department had committed to increasing expenditure on education, and had planned to spend at least £1bn over the current financial year. Some 69% of the money is given as bilateral aid, the rest is channelled through other organisations.

The department estimates that in 2007-08, it had funded around 5 million children in state schools around the world.

Since 2001, DfID had focused resources on teacher training, purchasing textbooks and building more schools, said the report.

Of the department’s 22 priority countries, which includes Uganda, 14 are on track to achieve universal primary education by 2015. In some countries enrolment rates have risen from 50% to 70%-80% since 2001. Progress on gender parity was judged to be “good” with eight of the 22 countries already having achieved equality.

But the NAO said completion rates for primary education remained low and drop-out rates remained at unacceptable levels. The report acknowledged the difficulties of calculating completion rates, as data was not easy to access in some countries, but said DfID had not given this area enough emphasis.

Pupil attainment levels had been poorly measured, said the report, but the limited data showed low attainment levels. In Ghana, figures showed that, at the most, only 26% of students were proficient in English and maths when they reached year six of primary school.

“There is little or no progress on literacy since the United Nations agreed the goals in 2000. High enrolment increases the proportion of children from uneducated families, increasing the difficulty of improved attainment,” said the report.

“Since 2001 DfID programme objectives have emphasised enrolment much more than completion or attainment.”

The report noted that DfID had recently taken steps to address the issues.

Teachers’ pay

Teacher attendance remained problematic and DfID had failed to routinely monitor teachers’ pay, despite it dominating national government education budgets, said the NAO.

In Katine, in north-east Uganda, where the Guardian is monitoring development work carried out by the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref), headteachers have often complained about poor pay and the lack of qualified teachers in the sub-county.

“Teachers’ pay dominates education budgets, yet DfID has had little focus on it,” said the report.

The NAO said DfID needed to monitor more closely the costs of classroom construction and textbook procurement to ensure value for money.

“A recent DfID review identified wide ranges in unit costs. Classroom construction varied from US$3,600 to US$20,000, while on average textbooks ranged from US$0.50 to US$5.00. Such wide ranges suggest national circumstances alone would not fully explain variations, and further DfID analysis could identify scope for improved value for money.”

It added that a DfID-supported programme in Kenya had shown that contracting work locally, rather than centrally, had halved building costs. This was found to be true in Katine.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “DfID support to primary education in developing countries has helped increase provision, with enrolment levels rising greatly, especially for girls. More emphasis now needs to be placed on quality, attainment and cost-effectiveness and DfID has begun to move in this direction.

“In my view it needs to do more and to take a tougher, clearer stance on the importance of cost and service performance information, and in particular indicators of education delivery and attainment if it is to make sure that its contributions achieve the maximum good effect.”

Andrew Mitchell said: “Education is a basic human right and a very good investment in the future. This report shows that progress is being made but also why this government is right to focus on results – concentrating on outputs and outcomes, not just inputs. Value for money, transparency and effectiveness remain my top priorities.”

Liz Ford, The Guardian June 18 2010

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