Taking Targets to Task Revisited: How Indicators of Progress on Access to Education can Mislead


Governments, bi-lateral development agencies, and United Nations institutions met at Jomtien in 1990 and Dakar in 2000 to agree support to achieve “Education for All” (EFA). EFA is now the umbrella that embraces much of the aid for educational development in poor countries and its influence in education policy in many developing countries is substantial. It identifies goals and targets and translates these into indicators which are used to evaluate progress and influence flows of resources. The search for evidence based policy depends on measures of performance that can link cause and effect and that represent real gains in progress towards desired outcomes. However, the indicators widely used for access to education have serious problems. This paper selects some of the key indicators used for EFA and offers an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.

Gross and Net Enrolment Rates (GERs and NERs) are widely used to assess levels of enrolment, but their changing values can provide misleading signals to policy makers. Grade specific enrolment rates may be better. Completion and survival rates for schooling provide improved indications of educational inclusion and exclusion. On schedule graduation rates are better than simple completion rates but are silent on issues of quality and achievement. Gender Parity Indices (GPI) foreground differences in participation related to children’s sex. However, most of these indices aggregate and conceal underlying patterns of participation (by age, location, household income) which give insight into causes and opportunities to ameliorate disadvantage. The GPI may also make invisible seriously unequal numbers of boys and girls in populations. The Education for All Development Index (EDI) used by UNESCO and the Global Monitoring Report (GMR) suffers from being a highly aggregated composite index which is difficult to interpret and of limited use since changes over time are often within its margins of error. Simpler indicators may be more useful than composite ones.

The choice of indicators is important. The process of setting and getting targets defined by indicators remains valuable but needs constant interrogation. The homogenising effects of global approaches to EFA has to be mediated by recognition that education policy in practice is national or sub-national at the level of delivering services. Global goals do not always have analogues at country level and conversely national aspirations and realities cannot always be mapped onto global goals. Improving target setting and devising better indicators which allow progress to be assessed and understood requires more nuanced understanding of what indicators do and do not measure, and in appreciating the virtues and vices of setting targets.


K. M. Lewin. Taking Targets to Task Revisited: How Indicators of Progress on Access to Education can Mislead. In: CREATE Pathways to Access Series, Research Monograph Number 54. (2011) 1-35. ISBN 0-901881-61-9

Taking Targets to Task Revisited: How Indicators of Progress on Access to Education can Mislead

Published 1 January 2011