Victor Ordoez and Rupert Maclean
Education in Asia: some current issues, concerns and prospects
Prospects, vol. XXX, no. 3, September 2000
Original language: English
Victor Ordonez (Philippines)
Since August 1995, Director of UNESCO Office for Asia and the Pacific (PROAP), Bangkok, prior to which he
was Principal Director of the Basic Education Division at UNESCO, Paris. Before joining UNESCO in 1990 he
was Deputy Minister and Under-Secretary of the Philippine Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports.
Rupert Maclean (Australia)
Director, Section for Secondary Education at UNESCO, Paris, since April 2000, prior to which he was Chief of
the Asia-Pacific Centre of Educational Innovation for Development (ACEID), UNESCO PROAP, Bangkok.
Before joining UNESCO in 1992 he was for two years the UNESCO Chief Technical Advisor in Myanmar for a
UNDP-funded project to strengthen and upgrade teacher educaton in that country, and before that a university
academic in Australia concerned with teacher education and with the sociology of education.
OPEN FILE: EDUCATION IN ASIA
SOME CURRENT ISSUES,
CONCERNS AND PROSPECTS
Victor Ordoez and Rupert Maclean
The region of Asia, which is to home to almost 60% of the world's population, is outstanding
for the vast range of diversities that encompass almost all aspects of life, whether
geographical, socio-economic, cultural, political or developmental.
In the region there are countries of vast landmasses (China, India and Australia) and
also island countries lying in expansive ocean areas (the Maldives). Countries with the largest
populations (China--almost 1.3 billion; India--1 billion) and the most rapidly growing mega-
cities are to be found in the region, as are countries with relatively small populations (Bhutan,
600,000). The levels of economic development also vary widely, with some of the richest
countries (such as Japan) and some of the poorest countries on Earth (such as Bangladesh)
Some of the major education problems currently facing mankind are evident in the
region. For instance, there are estimated to be 625 million illiterates in Asia: 71% of the
world's total, of whom 64% are women and girls.
A few of the disparities that exist in Asia are particularly disturbing. For example, in
South Asia the literacy rate is 42% compared to 72% in East and South-East Asia; in South
Asia, life expectancy is ten years lower than for those living in East and South-East Asia.
In Asia, some 74 million of the world's total 132 million children (or 56% of the
school-age population, 611 years old) are not enrolled in primary education. Of those who
enrol, at least one-third abandon or drop out before completing the primary cycle. The reasons
are compelling and well known: poverty, social exclusion, socio-economic gaps, urban-rural
disparities, rampant mismanagement and lack of adequate education programmes. Moreover,
gender disparities make the picture look bleaker: of the out-of-school children in the region,
some 46 million (62%) are girls, concentrated especially in South Asia.
In spite of such challenges and diversity there is a common thread in that all countries in
Asia and the Pacific believe that in order to achieve poverty eradication, sustainable human
development, justice and equity in all respects, there is a need to make greater efforts to
improve the quality, effectiveness and relevance of education and schooling. The reform and
re-engineering of education and schooling is receiving increasing attention from governments
in the region, particularly in the less developed countries.
Some key educational issues in the region
The rate and nature of educational development varies significantly in the different Asian
countries, the challenge being for countries to formulate realistic priorities and address
specific concerns that are most relevant to their needs and their pace of development.
At the second meeting of the Intergovernmental Regional Committee on Education in
Asia and the Pacific (organized by UNESCO Bangkok, 810 November 1998), countries
indicated that the most pressing areas for action are:
the provision of basic education services with particular reference to the needs of
marginalized and under-served groups, such as girls, women, minorities, refugees, the
disadvantaged and learners with special needs;
enhancement of community participation, including the ownership of schools and training
development of effective education strategies and schemes for poverty reduction;
improvement of education quality and learning achievements while at the same time
expansion of access to education;
promotion of greater attention to the pivotal role of teachers as agents for educational
progress and social change;
utilization and dissemination of the new information and communication technologies,
including the production and use of indigenous software, and expanding access to the
greater attention to the needs of youth with particular regard to meeting their educational
needs in terms of providing a high quality, relevant and diverse secondary education, since
this is a key factor for social and economic development;
support for the moral curriculum including international and values education; and
expansion of higher education, because although for many countries in the region the
major challenge remains increasing access and participation in basic education, for more
advanced countries continued productivity improvements and technological progress
demand increasingly sophisticated education and training, including at the tertiary level.
The emphasis which particular countries place on these matters depends upon their level of
development and the particular priorities of government. In addition even when countries
achieve some progress in strengthening and upgrading their education systems in areas such
as those referred to here, it remains to be determined whether progress is broad enough in
scope and depth to be sustainable.
While all of these areas of education are important (to varying degrees) to countries in
Asia, the area that is drawing special attention at the current time is Education for All (EFA).
This is reflected by the fact that over the past two years, in collaboration with the various
United Nations agencies, forty-four countries from Asia and the Pacific have worked to put
together comprehensive national assessment reports on the progress and state of education in
the region. And the results emerging from the EFA 2000 Assessment, as it is called, are
mixed, showing both positive and negative trends on the region's education front.
Ever since the historic World Conference on Education for All at Jomtien, Thailand in
March 1990, basic education has been back on the priority lists of governments and in the
minds of the general public. This advocacy has led to a proliferation of legislation,
programmes and projects, and in the early 1990s to even an increase in the levels of resource
But all the awareness and goodwill, and all the projects, resources and activities that
followed it, were not fully rewarded with the desired results. The literacy rates in some
countries of the region remain amongst the highest in the world. But universal primary
education continues to remain elusive even in countries with high participation rates. The gap
between girls' and boys' education, between male and female literacy, remains a huge
problem; unlocking additional resources to cope with the inevitable increase in demand
remains a challenge.
Data from the Asian countries in the first half of the decade showed almost exclusive
focus on the formal primary system. But in the last five years the expanded vision of EFA,
propagated by the Jomtien Conference, is finally taking hold.
In almost all countries, even where access remains a serious problem, there is a major
shift in focus from schooling to learning. There is a growing realization that Enrolment for All
is not the same as Education for All. This has two significant consequences.
First, it means that mainstream education cannot hope to address all learning needs
and must be accompanied by alternative, tailor-made, non-formal learning methods. As a
result of this understanding nations like Indonesia, the Philippines and India are
experimenting with systems in which participants of non-formal programmes are allowed to
cross laterally into the formal system. And as the non-formal sector becomes more
formalized, as it were, conversely the formal sector is becoming more informal or less rigid,
adopting mother tongues in the first few years or incorporating an eight-week pre-school
package at the start of the primary cycle, as in the Philippines.
Second, it means that inscribing children in a formal system does not guarantee that
their learning needs will be met. Recent achievement test results show an alarming percentage
of pupils who have been in the school system three years or more who still have not mastered
the basic skills of reading and writing.
Policy-makers are also slowly getting over the--sometimes false--dichotomy of
quantity versus quality. Under this dichotomy, when budgets are limited, one must often
choose between more textbooks and facilities for those already in school (quality) or
additional buildings and teachers for those not yet in the system (quantity). The drive towards
universal primary education in Asia has tended to favour quantity or expanded access. But
several countries in South Asia, for example, have reported that more schools do not
necessarily translate into more educated students. This is because there is low participation
and attendance when the school is perceived to be of little relevance or quality. Paradoxically,
paying attention to quality enhances quantity; providing trained and motivated teachers,
adequate learning materials, and most of all curricular content that meets the needs and
aspirations of the local communities is the best way to guarantee expanded and sustained
When listing impediments to progress, almost every country mentions financial
resource constraints. Yet there is a change of focus here that was not evident a decade ago.
Whereas the emphasis used to be the push for more money to do basically more of the same,
it seems to have shifted to how to make better use of the money already available.
Some of the factors impelling or impeding progress towards the goal of education for
all also have socio-cultural roots. On the negative side, misguided or unenlightened
interpretations of an aspect of a specific sub-culture sometimes hampers the push for girls'
education and the efforts to provide education to ethnic and religious minorities.
On the positive side, the fundamental value given to education, to respect for elders,
sages and teachers, the central role of the family, and the implicit faith in the importance of
educating the next generation are common across the great cultures of Asia. This accounts for
the continuing high levels of participation in East Asia in spite of the economic crisis, and in
Central Asia in spite of the government setbacks in the course of its transformation to a
market economy. Plotting a strategy of action for the next ten years must take into account
these socio-cultural factors.
The data emerging from the assessment of education in Asia and the Pacific shows
that if the goal of universal primary education is to be met, national budgets must introduce
dramatic, quantum leaps in allocation to primary education, doubling or tripling this
allocation over a few years; the responsibility for financing primary education must shift, with
all its pitfalls, to communities, the private sector, religious groups, NGOs or parents; non-
formal education programmes will have to be designed to assume a greater and more integral
role in the public education system; a breakthrough in the design of primary school delivery
systems must take place that effectively brings the cost per student down to a fraction of its
Ten years ago, the Jomtien Conference declared to the world that EFA is necessary--
as a fundamental human right, as an essential building block to development and peace. The
past decade has proven to the world, through glimpses of success in different countries, that
EFA is indeed possible. The exciting decade ahead, with all its complexities, makes EFA
more important than ever, and because of this it is time to tell the world that it is not only
necessary and possible, it is also urgent and achievable.
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