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UK aid programmes
to support education in three east African countries – together worth more than
£1bn – are failing to improve children’s basic literacy and maths skills,
according to a report published on Friday by the Independent Commission for Aid
Impact (ICAI).

The
commission said UK aid has helped fund the expansion of education systems in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania,
boosting enrolment and helping close the gender gap in local schools. However,
it criticised the Department for International Development (DfiD) for its
“lack of attention” to whether children are actually learning.

“The
quality of education being provided to most children in these countries is so
low that it seriously detracts from the development impact of DfiD’s
educational assistance,” said the report, which failed to find evidence
that DfiD was considering “basic preconditions for learning” such as
whether students and teachers actually attend class after the first day.

“To
achieve near-universal primary enrolment but with a large majority of pupils
failing to attain basic levels of literacy or numeracy is not, in our view, a
successful development result. It represents poor value for money both for the
UK’s assistance and for national budgets,” said the report giving
the programmes an “amber-red” rating signifying that they need
significant improvements.

DfiD funding
for education in the three countries is expected to top £1bn over the 2005-2015
period. The majority of this has been delivered through “budget
support” – money given directly to recipient country governments. While
this has helped DfiD to concentrate on promoting policy reforms, said ICAI, the
department should now consider a more “hands-on approach”.

More should
be done to help local ministries of education tackle the practical obstacles to
improving quality, said the report, pointing to issues such as the need for
teachers to travel miles to collect their salaries, delays in providing funding
to schools, corrupt inspection practices, and bureaucratic procedures for
buying textbooks.

Over the
past decade, donor funding for education has soared as countries race to meet
the millennium development goal to ensure all children complete a
full course of primary school by 2015. But critics say the focus on getting
increasing numbers of children in school has often come at the cost of
declining quality of education.

“The
assumption that has underpinned past donor support to education – that a simple
focus on enrolment would translate into learning – stands disproved,” says
the report. “There is a clear, common message: a major shift in approach
is needed.”

In 2010-11,
education was the fastest-growing part of Dfid’s bilateral aid budget. The ICAI
report cites data from DfiD’s country-level plans,compiled and analysed by the
Guardian last year, suggesting that education will grow to become the single
largest sector for the department’s bilateral aid by 2014.

A second
ICAI evaluation, also published on Friday, said UK funding for education and
health efforts in India’s Bihar state have succeeded in improving both the
quantity and quality of local services. A third reportsaid channelling UK
aid directly through recipient governments – “budget support” – has
been largely “effective”, but that its value varies from country to
country.

Graham Ward,
ICAI chief commissioner, said: “These reports show that some of DfID’s
work is having a real impact on the lives of the poorest people, particularly
in India, which has seen considerable improvements in health and education.
They also show, however, that there is more to do to get the most out of budget
support and to make sure that education programmes in east Africa build on
progress in enrolment to focus on ensuring a good education.”

Joseph
O’Reilly, chairman of the policy group for the Global Campaign for
Education UK and head of education at Save the Children, said ICAI’s
reports will “provide extra impetus” for efforts to improve the
quality of education in poor countries.

He welcomed
the recommendation that DfiD support local communities to monitor education
spending and promote accountability. “DfID needs to ensure that its
investments are effective and working with communities to help them monitor
what’s happening is an essential element that DfID should prioritise.”

International
development secretary Andrew Mitchell said: “We will use their [ICAI]
findings to further improve the way we deliver aid around the world.”

He added:
“In the past there has been too much emphasis on just getting children
through the door and not enough on quality. The coalition government is
addressing this with our pilots on payment for results for education in
Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania.

“We are
clear that it is not enough to simply have children sitting in a classroom.

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