School enrolments growing at least as fast as the school-age population

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UNESCO launched in 2012 the World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education, the report presents the pathways in education of girls and boys in aspects such as access, participation and progression in pre-primary, primary, secondary and tertiary education.  The data, from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, is presented disaggregated by sex, giving special emphasis on gender indicators to illustrate disparities and changes observed since 1970. Some other important factors taken in consideration are: national wealth, geographic location, investment in education, and fields of study.

Even though there has been progress towards parity in education there are still some differences for girls, who remain deprived of full equal opportunities, especially when it comes to secondary level in developing countries. Nevertheless, in developed countries there is an inverse tendency, where girls are achieving higher enrolment rates than boys.

One of the most important factors in educational participation and persistence is the national wealth of each country, where the GDP per capita is strongly associated to school-life expectancy. Some of the countries with low national income level and low school-life expectancy (4 to 7 years) are: Central African Republic, Eritrea and Niger. On the other hand, Australia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway are identified as the countries with highest national income level and school-life expectancy (17 to 21 years). The percentage of public spending to education varies among countries between less than 10% and more than 20%, where two-thirds of the countries devote 10 to 20 percent of total public expenditure on education.

In what regards to compulsory education laws, 105 countries (the largest range of countries) have compulsory education requirements of 10 to 14 years, while 67 countries establish between 7 and 9 years. The regions that represent the majority of countries that make compulsory education for 10 or more years are Latin America and the Caribbean and North America and Western Europe. Approximately half of the countries of the other regions make it compulsory for 7 to 9 years. It is the Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia that have more countries with compulsory education for 5 to 6 years. 

Gender parity

The Gender Parity Index allows an analysis of (un)equal participation for girls and boys in education. Most of the countries from South and West Asia, Arab States, and Sub-Saharan Africa regions have not achieved it for neither primary nor secondary education (Algeria is the only country who was achieved parity for secondary education only). A big part of countries who belong to the regions East Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean have achieved parity for primary education only, while in North America and Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe have parities achieved for primary and secondary education.

Primary education

Worldwide, primary education enrolment levels are increasing and the gender gaps have narrowed. Three-quarters (73%) of the countries reported a gross enrollment ratio (GER) of over 98% in primary education; which means near-universal primary enrolment once that these countries have the 77% of world´s children. On the other side, only 3% of the children live in the 5% of the countries with a GER below 80%. The net enrolment rate (NER) for 44% of the countries ranges from 85% to 95%, about a tenth of the countries have a primary enrollment level of 98% and above, and one in ten have rates of less than 74%.

Girls, have been the principal beneficiaries of the increase in the GER. Nevertheless, some of the countries with more gender disparities (GPI), where boys achieve greater rates than girls are: Somalia (0,55), Afghanistan (0,67), Chad (0,70), and Central African Republic (0,71). In an inverse situation, some of the countries where females are favored are: Mauritania (1,08), Nauru (1,06), and Kiribati, Bangladesh, Senegal and China (1,04).

Even though many countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, the proportions of repeaters show gender differences; in this case males show worse results. Theo only regions containing more female repeaters than males are Arab States, Central and Eastern Europe, while Central Asia shows the same percentage of repeaters for males and females, and the rest of the regions have more male repeaters than girls (East Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America and Western Europe, South and West Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa).  When comparing the world repeaters in primary education a difference of ,6 percentage points is observed, the difference between 5,2% male repeaters and 4,6% female repeaters.

In what regards to dropout rates, results show that it is highly related to national economic context, affecting differently depending on gender (where boys usually dropout at much higher rates than girls). The primary level completion rates around the world have risen, however Africa shows the lowest rates, where most of the countries have rates of less than 80%. In what concerns to gender, in all the regions completion rates are higher for girls, except in Latin America and the Caribbean and East Asia and the Pacific. Nonetheless it is also important to mention the out-of-school children rates, 15% of the countries have minimal proportions of those children (0% to 1%), but 20% of the countries have rates of more than 15%, 19 of these countries, mostly situated in Sub-Saharan Africa, have more than 20% of children out-of-school, note that rates in this region include 45% of the world´s children in such situation.

Secondary education

In secondary education, GER global average has increased between 1970 and 2009, from 48% to 69% for boys (a difference of 21 percentage points), and from 39% to 67% for girls (difference of 28 percentage points). The more notorious gain was observed in Latin America and the Caribbean, where girls passed from 27% to a 93% GER (a difference of 66 percentage points),  in the Arab States, East Asia and the Pacific, and South and West Asia girls also made an important progress. Nevertheless, in all five regions GER’s are higher for males than females, even though North America and Western Europe have almost the same values for both sexes. Secondary enrolment is rising faster than school age population in most regions (all except Central and Easter Europe). In this level of education there are high out-of-school female rates, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, however, the countries with this problem are found in most of the regions, worldwide, 32% of the countries have at least 15% of out-of-school females.

Tertiary education

Regarding tertiary education, women have been the principal beneficiaries of the expansion of higher education in all regions. Total enrolment had an increase of around 500 percent from 1970 to 2009, where female enrolment grew almost twice as fast as male’s, male GER grew from 11% to 26% (a difference of 15 percentage points), while female GER tripled from 8% to 28% (a difference of 20 percentage points). East Asia and the Pacific is the region with greater advancements in this subject. On the other hand, North America and Western Europe is the region with less growth, even so, the enrolments rose 250 percent during this period. It is observed that national wealth has a directly proportional relation with women enrollment on higher education, but note that there are significant gender differences in the various fields of study, being social sciences, business and law the preferred areas by woman in all regions except Central Asia.

Gender trends in literacy

The enhancement in educational aspects mentioned above result a significant progress in adult literacy, the global rate increased from 76% in 1970 to 83% in 2009.  The region with the highest rate was Central Asia (99,4) while the lowest rate was for Sub-Saharan Africa (61,9). However, despite gains, women still represent a majority of adult illiterates. In what concerns to the rates for youth, they present higher values than adults, and the gender gap has narrowed since 2000.


Finally, gender equality in education if affected by policies through the following main factors: female role models (female teachers) in primary education facilitate female school enrolment; secondary teaching force evenly divided among males and females also helps in this matter; another important factor is the distance to school, where longer distances affect in a greater extent to girls. Another important aspect mentioned in the report is that girls tend to have better reading achievement compared to boys, and boys have an advantage in mathematics and science.

Concluding, over the last two decades progress has been made towards children access to education. Enrolments at all levels have increased and number of out-of-school children has declined. Gender parity also improved, having female enrolments increasing in faster rates than those for males at all levels, especially in tertiary education. In primary level, two thirds of countries achieved gender parity, though; girls continue to face discrimination in access to education in some countries. In what concerns to boys the significant problems are repetition and dropout rates.

By: Andrea Oceguera Farías