Helpdesk Report: Evidence on girls’ secondary education



Undertake a rapid review of the evidence around girls and secondary education in developing contexts and summarise the key issues arising from this evidence.

Key findings

  • The cost of secondary education, including fees, other direct costs and opportunity costs constitute the primary barrier to secondary education in most contexts. The costs are often higher for girls than boys. Strategies that address the cost barriers, such as fee elimination and cash transfers are generally effective at increasing girls’ participation in secondary education. The most direct and fastest way for governments to boost girls’ enrolment is to ban schools from collecting fees.
  • Distance to school is another significant barrier to secondary education for many girls. Interventions that provide additional girls’ school places in underserved areas are generally successful.
  • Gender based violence in and around school, child marriage and early pregnancy are all significant barriers to secondary education for girls. Gender inequalities in expectations, roles, allocation of chores and learning experience also act as barriers to girls’ participation in secondary education in many contexts.
  • Over-age school attendance is very prevalent in low income countries. Girls who are over age are more likely to drop out and less likely to progress to secondary school.
  • There are at least 20 countries where girls, on average, receive less than 9 years education. In almost all of these countries, girls receive fewer years of education than boys.
  • In many countries where DFID works, education is not compulsory beyond 13 years of age. But in many countries where compulsory education extends beyond this age, girls’ secondary enrolment rates are very low.
  • There is inconsistent evidence as to whether private schools are equally accessed by boys and girls. There is stronger evidence that philanthropic and religious schools allow equal access to boys and girls. Public Private Partnerships, where the state funds places in private schools, appear to be beneficial to girls in contexts where there is a good supply of quality private secondary school places for girls.
  • There is extensive evidence that disadvantage is compounded by being a girl. Whilst the gender gaps in enrolment at the global and, in most cases, at the national level are small, gender gaps to the detriment of girls tend to be wider within the most marginalised populations. However, few programmes target combinations of gender with other forms of social exclusion.
  • Social safety net programmes have been found to be effective at helping poor rural girls to access secondary education but there is evidence that the poorest of the poor sometimes miss out on receiving the benefits they are entitled to.
  • Non-formal accelerated learning programmes can help girls who have missed out on education to catch up on their basic education. But very little research or evaluation of the transition of girls from such programmes into other forms of education has been published.


Naylor, R.; Mobey, H. Helpdesk Report: Evidence on girls’ secondary education. Health and Education Advice and Resource Team (HEART), Oxford, UK (2015) 29 pp.

Helpdesk Report: Evidence on girls’ secondary education

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