The past decade has seen mixed progress towards Education for All (EFA) in East Asia and the Pacific.1 More children are participating in pre-school education, many countries have achieved universal primary education (UPE) and more are moving from primary school to secondary education. Gender parity has been achieved at the primary level in a majority of countries and adult literacy rates are improving. However, challenges remain. The Pacific subregion has seen a 7% decline in primary enrolment rates, and 7.9 million children are not enrolled in school in the region as a whole. Some 105 million adults are still illiterate and levels of learning achievement are low in many countries. East Asia and the Pacific spends a lower share of national income on education than the world average. On the other hand, external aid to basic education has increased in recent years, despite stagnation in overall levels.
Goal 2: Universal primary education Over the past decade, progress towards UPE has been uneven across East Asia and the Pacific. While many countries in the region have relatively high primary enrolment rates, some are registering increasing numbers of children not enrolled in schooling. Progress towards UPE is limited. From 1999 to 2008, nearly 30 million fewer children enrolled in primary education in the region, partly due to declining fertility rates in some large countries. The regional primary adjusted net enrolment ratio (ANER)2 remained about the same over the decade and stood at 95% in 2008. However, the Pacific subregion is moving away from the UPE goal, as its primary ANER declined from 90% to 84% between 1999 and 2008. Progress towards UPE was particularly marked in Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Tonga, where the primary ANERs increased by five to eleven percentage points between 1999 and 2008. In Tonga, the indicator increased from 88% to 99%. The situation remains critical in several countries, including the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste, all with ANERs below 80% (Figure 2). Numbers of children out of school are declining, but at varying speeds. Some 7.9 million children of primary school age in East Asia and the Pacific – 61% of them boys – were not enrolled in school in 2008, down by nearly 3 million since 1999.
Progress in recent years has been particularly remarkable. The number of out-of-school children increased by an annual average of 203,000 between 1999 and 2004, but then declined substantially, with reductions of nearly 1 million per year between 2004 and 2008. Some countries with large out-of-school populations, including the Philippines, saw their rate of progress slip over time. The out-of-school number in the Philippines fell by nearly 23,000 per year on average from 1999 to 2004, but by only 16,000 annually from 2004 to 2008. By contrast, progress has accelerated in some countries, including the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, in recent years. Many children in the region will remain out of school in 2015. Trend analysis can provide plausible scenarios for the numbers of children out of school in 2015. In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, a continuation to 2015 of the trend from 1999 to 2008 would see the country’s out-of-school number fall by 4.4% to some 135,000 by 2015. The out-of-school number in the Philippines would be roughly unchanged at 961,000 in 2015 based on the 1999–2008 trend, but the country’s recent slowing in progress towards UPE means a continuation of the more recent 2004–2008 trend would lead to an increase to just over 1 million.
Starting school at the right age is a challenge in some countries. Getting children into primary school at the right age, ensuring that they progress smoothly and facilitating completion are key elements to advance towards UPE. Many countries in the region are struggling to get children into primary school at the official starting age. In eight of the ten countries in the region with data, less than 70% of children starting school were of official primary school age in 2008, and the figure went as low as 38% in Vanuatu in 2007. However, rapid change is possible. In Cambodia, the share of children starting school at the official age increased from 61% in 1999 to 79% in 2008. Progress in survival to the last grade of primary school is mixed. Once children are enrolled at the right age, the challenge is to get them through school. While more than 92% of children starting primary school reached the last grade in East Asia in 2007, school survival remained an important issue in some countries, including Cambodia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic with survival rates below 70%. Nevertheless, several countries made significant progress in improving survival rates. In particular, the rates in Fiji and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic have risen by twelve percentage points each since 1999. Prospects for entry, progression and completion of primary school are closely linked to household circumstances. Children who are poor, rural or from ethnic or linguistic minorities face higher risks of dropping out. In Cambodia, completion rates for the richest 20% of the population are more than three times as high as those of the poorest quintile. Tackling school dropout requires action on several fronts. Dropout profiles vary enormously by country. In Myanmar, with a first-grade dropout rate of 12%, and the Philippines at nearly 13%, children have trouble negotiating their way through the early grades. High dropout rates in the last grade in other countries, such as Indonesia and Vanuatu, are associated with late entry to school. Evidence from many countries shows that the risk of primary school dropout increases with age, thought the strength of the association varies. Lowering the risk of dropout requires a broad set of policies aimed at reducing underlying vulnerabilities, including poverty-related factors and problems linked to the quality of education.