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Improving Primary Education

Improvements in primary education (4 years of a basic education, between the ages of  6 and 10) address poverty and food insecurity in the long term by targeting the root problems of a lack of literacy and numeracy in communities. Improved literacy and numeracy will allow impoverished individuals to:

  • Become informed about nutrition and health, so they will be better able to care for themselves and dependents
  • Become capable of understanding and using new technologies that improve agricultural yields
  • Obtain higher-paying jobs, so they have an increased ability to buy food

The Importance of Education

A proper primary education teaches literacy and numeracy; the ability to read and work with numbers will benefit children into adulthood. These children will grow up to be farmers or small business owners (see Microfinance), mothers or fathers; even basic literacy and numeracy will increase their efficiency and ability to learn. Indeed, Jamison, Jamison & Hanushek (2006) found that higher levels of education quality increased a country’s rate of technological progress. The same paper confirmed that higher levels of education quality increased growth rates of national income.

Economic growth is strongly correlated to a decrease in hunger (Soubbotina, 2004). Burchi and De Muro (2007) conclude from their econometric model that “doubling access to primary education causes a decrease of food insecurity by approximately 20% or 24%.” Their paper asserts that “primary education is a crucial element to reduce food insecurity in rural areas, even when compared to other factors such as access to water, health, and sanitation.”

At village level, the close and mutual causal connections at individual and household level between better health, better education, higher earning power, and poverty reduction are manifest; the total impact of education plus land, or education plus bullock-power, in reducing poverty impact considerably exceeds the sum of the individual impacts, in data for ten Indian villages over eight years [Singh and Hazell 1993]. Also, there are strong links between a region's or a nation's health and education (especially if obtainable together, and if primary education reaches women and is completed) and its subsequent growth and poverty reduction. The cross-section evidence, from household surveys to international data sets, has often been summarized [Gaiha 1994: ch. 9; World Bank 1990; Schultz 1988; Behrman and Deolalikar 1988; Psacharopoulos 1981] and will not be repeated here.

Asadullah and Rahman (2005) demonstrate that basic literacy and numeracy in farmers  leads to an increased ability to process agricultural information and take advantage of available technologies. On education initiatives in Bangladesh, they write, “Current policy initiatives of the government to expand educational opportunities in rural areas of the country are therefore well-placed and promise significant long-run returns in terms of bolstering agricultural productivity” (Asadullah & Rahman, 2005, 21).

The Gender Gap

Special attention must be given to decreasing the gender gap in education. As Rosegrant and Cline (2003) note, “Women's education affects nearly every dimension of development, from lowering fertility rates to raising productivity and improving environmental management.” Yet in most countries we see a gender gap in education, with less girls in school and for less time.      

International Food Policy Research Institute [IFPRI] studies in Egypt and Mozambique estimate that ensuring women finish primary school reduces the proportion of the population below the poverty line by 33.7% and 23.2% respectively. Along with other studies, these two studies show that female education has much larger impact on poverty than other factors, such as male education (IFPRI, 2009).

Source: IFPRI, 2009

The empowerment of women through education can play a crucial role in conquering childhood malnutrition. With higher levels of education, women are able to procure better incomes, allowing them to become economically empowered within their homes. This empowerment often leads to a shift in the power dynamics of a household, especially household within a patriarchal structure or one in which the men of the household are granted almost complete control over the allocation of resources. Although this may not always hold true, women, with their newfound empowerment, tend to address the problems concerning the immediate well-being of their family. Mothers are typically more aware of the needs of their children, and therefore are more likely to place obtaining food for their children at the top of their priorities. Therefore, through empowerment, women can address the nutritional needs of their children, decreasing the rates of childhood malnutrition (Concern Wildlife & Welthungerhilfe, 2009).
Their economic empowerment also increases their decision-making and strengthens their voice within their community. They, therefore, are more likely to vocalize concerns about women’s and children’s nutritional needs (Concern Wildlife & Welthungerhilfe, 2009).

Education in Rural and Developing Areas

On relative cost-effectiveness of education in developing regions, King (1991) advises that anything beyond general secondary education and 'a minimum exposure to pedagogical theory' is not cost-effective. King also suggests a focus on basic and sufficient resources; that is, don't plan for high quality buildings and furniture, TVs, and computers if the students don’t even have chalkboards.Combining practical reasoning like King’s with the recognition that no long-term solution to hunger and food insecurity could achieve success without improving education, we decided to focus on improving the quality of primary education while offering the hope of secondary education as well. Parents are more likely to send their children to school if they see primary education as a stepping stone to greater achievement and success. When primary education quality improves, resulting in an increased earning capacity and thus greater freedom to look beyond simply growing enough food to eat, secondary education will become a more viable option.

Cluster Schools

Our goals for education will be realized through the implementation of regionally-designed variations of the cluster-school system. The physical building of schools will be a smaller component of this plan, since the problem in most impoverished areas is not lack of schools, but low attendance rates (Jenkner & Hillman, 2004). Rather, we will focus on improving school quality and relevancy of material taught, and on increasing attendance through our other plans (see Deworming and School Lunch Programs).

Cluster school systems have been implemented with great success in some Southeast Asian and Latin American countries. Thailand turned to a cluster system for rural schools in the 1960s with extraordinary results. In 1960, only 33.5% of those 25 or older had completed 4 years of primary school; by 1980 69% had. This occurred while Thailand's population was nearly doubling (26 to 44 million). By the early 1980s, 96% of primary school-age children were attending primary school (Schwille & Wheeler, 1991).


Source: Bray, 1987

Grouping schools into clusters is an effective way to improve primary education quality in rural areas while remaining cost-effective. 6 to 11 schools are associated with a central school in a single cluster. We recommend a maximum of 7 schools per cluster, however, based on indications that a greater number of schools per cluster decreased the effectiveness of the system (Bray, 1987). The access between each school to the central school must be good, and if adequate transportation methods do not exist, improving them must be a priority. Adequacy of transportation is judged on the basis of transit time, cost, and safety. In practicality, what matters is the teachers’ willingness to travel these routes; expectations of adequate transportation will vary based on what is considered the norm in the region. Thus, adequacy of transportation should be evaluated through teacher survey data by region.

This arrangement permits the sharing of school resources (textbooks, for example). In rural areas of Thailand, for example, village schools would rotate a set of books in a tin box; thus, instead of a single school benefiting, all of them did (Bray, 1987). Each school would receive resources for a certain amount of time based on the size of the school. For example, a school with 50 students would be allotted more time with the resource than a school with 30 students, to allow students more equal benefit.

Cluster schools also allow for regular teacher meetings/trainings at the central school location. Since teacher quality and teacher attendance are two of the most important factors in school quality, regular meetings and trainings would hold teachers more accountable, increase teacher quality and provide support for teachers. Teaching in an impoverished rural area is a significant challenge, and teachers lacking in training will not be able to face it. Teacher attendance is such a problem in some areas that teachers are required to take a time-stamped photo of themselves with their students each day in the school year, and the amount of pay they receive depends on the number of valid photos recorded. The time-stamp photo solution has proven successful, resulting in an increase in teacher attendance rate of 15-20% and thus an increase of 62% in likelihood to be admitted to regular government schools (Green, 2009).

While each school in the cluster only needs a primary school, the central school incorporates a secondary school in addition to a primary school. Parents will be more likely to send their children to school if they see possibilities for further education after primary school. Furthermore, if levels of education vary within a population, competition for jobs requiring different levels of education will be reduced. That is, those that might otherwise have joined the workforce competing for primary education-level jobs would instead be competing for secondary education-level jobs.

We will focus on improving primary school connections and access to information using the cluster school plan in rural areas where existing primary schools are unsatisfactory. Quality of primary schools will be evaluated by indicators of student attendance, teacher attendance, and test scores. Student and teacher attendance rates lower than 70% are target areas. Our focus is on rural areas since these regions are where hunger rates tend to be higher and education quality tends to be lower.

As the cluster system develops, it will naturally (and should be allowed to) adapt to the circumstances in the region. If a particular school is especially successful and attracts students from further away, straining the capacities of the cluster, the cluster should expand to meet the demand. Non-central schools might begin secondary schools of their own. If these clusters are indeed performing well and needs more support for the increased demand, government funding should support the cluster accordingly, as per the Countries Protocol (in which governments are advised to focus on, among other priorities, education initiatives).

On the other hand, if a particular school or cluster is doing poorly, the reasons for its poor performance need to be examined and addressed. Is it an issue of administration, lack of adequate resource/funding allocation, or a lack of student attendance? These problems will all require different approaches. If the main administrator is incapable or corrupt, immediate yet discreet and diplomatic action must be taken to replace him. However, during planning phases of cluster school implementation, current leadership of schools should play a role in deciding which will become the central school and thus who is the principal administrator. Thus, the issue of corrupt or incapable leadership can be preemptively avoided.

A lack of adequate resource or funding allocation indicates that the available funds and resources for cluster school programs are stretched thin. It was these instances when past implementations of cluster schools failed, so special care should be taken to prevent overextension of resources; a general principle of quality over quantity should be observed.

Finally, lack of student attendance can be due to a number of different problems and the best response will vary depending on the case, but we can again refer here to Deworming and School Lunch Programs, and teacher attendance as well as facility quality should be evaluated as well, since both affect student attendance. Countries are advised in the Countries Protocol to lower or abolish school fees, which has shown to significantly increase primary school attendance in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda (Glewwe, Zhao, & Binder, 2010).


Governments are advised in the Nation Protocol to develop effective education in rural areas through variations of the cluster school model. However, since the Protocol also advises countries to lower or abolish school fees in the interest of increasing attendance, governments may need assistance to cover the costs. Thus, NGOs are instructed to allocate conditional aid to developing nations directed towards improvements in education in the strategy detailed above.

To achieve universal primary completion (UPC), 103 million additional children must be enrolled in school. Estimated costs of this range widely. In the first scenario of the New World Bank Cost Estimates from 2003, it will cost $98 billion over 15 years (2000-2015), leaving a financing gap of $38 billion total, or $2.5 billion/yr. In the second scenario, where school quality is improved, efficiency is enhanced, and there is an increased mobilization of financial resources, the financing gap would be $31 billion total, or $2 billion/yr (Glewwe, Zhao & Binder, 2010).

However, Glewwe, Zhao and Binder found in their analysis of the World Bank cost estimates that the estimates are fundamentally flawed, because they are based on the assumption that a lack of access to schools is the main obstacle to UPC. In fact, the reasons for low primary enrollment and completion rates largely vary by region. A study in western Honduras showed that the top three reasons for the 50% primary completion rate were: child not interested in school (36%), economic problems (19%), and child must work (9%). 8% of respondents listed the lack of a nearby school as a reason. Glewwe et. al.’s analysis makes sense based on this data, and in fact many of the programs and strategies designed to increase primary enrollment already take this fact into account.

Unfortunately, Glewwe et. al. cannot provide a superior estimate to the World Bank’s because there is simply not enough knowledge of the reasons for low primary enrollment in different regions. The World Bank estimate is the best estimate there is, but it is not a good one. The flaws in the estimate go beyond the inevitable error in such calculations; a more realistic calculation is possible, but only if more research is done into the reasons for low primary enrollment. The top priority regions for this research are those areas furthest from achieving the Millennium Development Goal of primary education, such as Mongolia (Overseas Development Institute [ODI], 2010).

Works cited: 

Asadullah, M. N. & Rahman, S. (2005). Farm productivity and efficiency in rural Bangladesh: The role of education revisited. Retrieved November 15, 2010, from the Centre for the Study of African Economies:

Bray, M. (1987). School clusters in the third world: Making them work. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from Unesco-Unicef Cooperative Programme

Burchi, F., & De Muro, P. (2007). Education for rural people: a neglected key to food security. Rep. Universita Degla Studi Roma Tre.

Easterly, W. (2006). The White Man’s Burden. New York: Penguin Books.

Glewwe, P., Zhao, M., & Binder, M. (2006). Achieving Universal Basic and Secondary Education: How Much Will It Cost? Retrieved November 11, 2010, from American Academy of Arts and Sciences:

Green, D. (2009, August 20). What can you do if teachers don’t show up? Message posted to From Poverty to Power. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from

International Food Policy Research Institute. Global Hunger Index - 2009: The Challenge of Hunger: Focus on Financial Crisis and Gender Inequality, 21-23. Gender Inequality and Hunger.

Jamison, E. A., Jamison, D. T., & Hanushek, E.A. (2006). The effects of education quality on income growth and mortality decline. Available from National Bureau of Economic Research. (Working paper no. 12652).

Jenkner, E., & Hillman, A. L. (2004). Educating Children in Poor Countries. Retrieved November 10, 2010, from International Monetary Fund:

King, K. (1991). Aid and Education in the Developing World. Essex: Longman Group.

Kirk, J., & Winthrop, R. (2006). Meeting EFA: Afghanistan home-based schools.

Kiros, G. & Hogan, D. P. (2000, June 22). War, famine, and excess child mortality in Africa: The role of parental education." International Journal of Epidemiology, pp. 447-455. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from Oxford Journals:

Lipton, M. (1996). Successes in anti-poverty. Available from International Labour Office (Discussion paper).

Overseas Development Institute. (2010). Millennium Development Goals report card: Measuring progress across countries. Retrieved November 27, 2010 from

Pelletier, D. et al. (1994). A methodology for estimating the contribution of malnutrition to child mortality in developing countries. The Journal of Nutrition, 2106S-2122S. 

Rosegrant, M. & Cline, S. (2003). Global food security: Challenges and policies. Science, 1917-1919.

Schwille, J. & Wheeler, C. (1991). Primary education in Thailand. In H. J. Walberg (Ed.), International Journal of Educational Research (pp.123-226). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Soubbotina, T. P. (2004). Beyond economic growth. Retrieved November 10, 2010, from World Bank: