Beyond Basic – Should Secondary Education Become the New Minimum Standard?

A new study exploring how the quality of health enjoyed by children could be determined by their mothers’ educational background has found that children born to mothers with a minimum 12 years of education are likely to be much healthier, with superior nutrition, weight and height, than those born to mothers with fewer years of schooling.

“Education policies targeted at girls should thus focus on trying to maintain them in school longer than the six years that has been the basic standard so far”, says Dr. Eugenie Maiga, an economist at the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), and author of the research.

But she also believes that the findings have a significance that go beyond just their insights about how long future mothers should stay in school. According to her “the findings also pose a fundamental challenge to the general notion in most parts of the developing world that six years of basic education is an acceptable minimum threshold for a society”.

The research paper titled: The Impact of Mother’s Education on Child Health and Nutrition in Developing Countries: Evidence from a Natural Experiment in Burkina Faso was presented by Dr. Maiga at the just ended African Economic Conference in Addis Ababa, in October 2011.

The basic truth: A mother’s education matters more than a father’s education

It is common knowledge that parents’ educational backgrounds have significant effects on the welfare of their children, including health. Better educated parents are more likely to raise healthier children, not just because they are better informed about basic hygiene, nutrition and taking their kids to the clinic, but also, their education gives them access to good wage-employment to fund their children’s nutrition and healthcare needs.

However it is the mother’s education which has stronger impact on a child’s health. Mothers spend more time than fathers taking care of their children; they play a more important role in decisions about child health and nutrition. Many empirical studies in economics – Dr. Maiga’s being the latest – have confirmed this finding, and the evidence they provide has helped to drive the campaign for greater female education in developing countries.

But the surprising element in this new study is the discovery that the number of years a future mother stays in school matters. Dr. Maiga says that the twelve year threshold of schooling reported in the findings is noteworthy. She argues that while mothers with about six years of schooling for example, are better able to raise healthier kids than those with no schooling at all, the point really is about getting the best we can from mothers’ education.

The issue is even more significant because of the current high rates of malnutrition and stunting among under-five children in the developing world. In Burkina Faso, where the research was conducted, 39% of all children under-five are stunted. It is 35% for Africa and 34% for Asia. This has consequences. Poorly nourished children perform poorly in school, which means they are less likely to succeed in adult life.

Make secondary education compulsory for all  

Dr. Maiga believes there is a case to make for governments and policymakers to begin to think about twelve years of compulsory education for all, including boys. In many countries that would mean that senior high school certificate should be viewed as the new ‘basic’ education certificate.

Such an education model will have cost implications for government budgets but Dr. Maiga believes the benefits will outweigh the costs. She is hopeful that the budget for such a system may well be within reach for many countries. “I believe that was a problem in the years of growth stagnation; in many of the countries that are beginning to experience better growth of late, and thus richer state coffers, policy makers should begin to consider such a system”, she added.

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