Quality Education for All: Improving girls’ experience of education, rather than simply their access


Abu Shouk, Sudan. Photo credit: UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran

Are girls taught that they are not as clever as boys? Are they taught that they can’t do maths and science? Do they learn that women should be subservient to men because all the pictures in the textbook depict them this way…?' - (Learning for Life, Plan 2012)

The right to education does not just mean sitting in a classroom, but also includes the right to actually learn something of value whilst sitting there. Among the world’s 650 million children of primary school age, 130 million are in school but are failing to learn the basics (UNESCO 2012). Soaring enrolment rates since the inception of the millennium development goals (MDGs) have generally had a negative knock-on effect on teaching and learning in the classroom in developing countries, as teachers struggle to manage crowded classrooms with scant resources. As a result, there is growing pressure from all quarters to ensure that this ‘learning crisis’ becomes the central focus of educational development – and as such, that all students have equal opportunities to fulfil their capabilities and reach their potential once sitting in the classroom.

While poor quality education adversely affects learning outcomes for all students, research has shown that girls are more likely to be negatively impacted than boys (Unterhalter 2005). A 2011 baseline study by Plan UK across nine developing countries, for example, found that girls who sit national exams are less likely to pass those exams than boys. Following on from these findings, Plan UK commissioned The Girls’ Learning Report, to look beyond the issue of gender disparity in enrolment, and to explore the inequality of experience for schools in many classrooms that might be causing these disparities in attainment.  The report provides clear evidence for the importance of ensuring a good quality educational experience for girls.

Specifically, the report sought to analyse potential school-based factors that may impede girls’ learning.  While concerns exist about the quality of many national exams, that doesn’t deter from the fact that they are generally used as a screening device, acting as gate-keepers to further life opportunities such as employment or transition to higher levels of education.

One common motif that emerged from the research is that female teachers are more likely to act as role models for girls, and have a positive impact on both their enrolment and learning outcomes.  However, there is a lack of female teachers in schools, particularly at the higher levels and particularly in leadership roles. The report also found that traditional teaching methods, which are widely used in developing countries, leave little space for collaborative learning which has been linked to higher learning achievement, particularly for girls.

With the current push among education actors to ameliorate the ‘learning crisis’, it is important to remember that learning is not just about numeracy and literacy. Schools are a microcosm of wider society and as such transmit wider societal values and attitudes in relation to the role of girls and women. As the Girls’ Learning Report found, teachers’ negative pre-conceptions and expectations around girls’ capabilities can be highly gendered, which in turn can impede their learning.  Girls are more likely than boys to internalise negative comments, and teachers’ low expectations negatively affects their own expectations and aspirations. Compounding these issues may be curricula which reinforces gendered stereotypes.

A final school-based factor that can impede all students’ learning, but again particularly girls’, is violence in, and on the way to, schools.

What can we therefore take from the Girls’ Learning Report?  If quality education for all is to become a reality, we need to be looking beyond gender quality in enrolment to interrogate what happens at the classroom level. We need to be ensuring that students are not marginalised within the classroom, that teaching and learning processes and resources are inclusive, and that girls are given the same opportunities to fulfil their capabilities as boys. School based factors that impede girls’ learning must be removed if education is to truly promote gender equality, so that classrooms become places where all children are equally encouraged to learn, equally protected and equally provided with opportunities to reach their potential. 

In Focus – School related Gender-based Violence in Sierra Leone.

A study of school-related gender-based violence in Sierra Leone found that violence is prevalent in schools and is often gendered affecting girls more than boys. This violence can take many forms:

·Nine in every ten students in primary and secondary have experienced at least one form of physical violence

·Sexual violence is widespread in schools - about two-thirds of the girls reported to have experienced at least one or more forms of sexual violence.

·The study also found various forms of psychological violence in schools, including insults and name calling, intimidation and threats – the main perpetrators identified are teachers.

Not only can gender-based violence have short and long term consequences on mental and physical health, but it can also impact negatively on attendance, drop out and learning when in the classroom.  Psychological violence can damage self-esteem and confidence, and can affect participation in the learning process.

Some quotes from girls from Plan’s Building Skills for Life mid-term review and SRGBV study:

 “My mathematics teacher asked me to fall in love with him, but I found it difficult for me to do that. This became a problem between us. Any small mistake or bad thing I did I am almost always punished. This was one of the reasons I hate school and dropped”. (Girl, FGD, Bombali).

“Some of our teachers harass us to give them sex for grades, and they will fail you when you do not give them, which is leading us to drop out of school” (Girl out of school, Bombali).

Anita Reilly, Plan UK

Anita Reilly is Plan UK's Education Advisor. 

For more information on what GADN is doing to support girls in education, check out our Girls' Education in International Development working group page.