Attitudes to schoolwork diverge between developing countries and the west
In all the analysis of education in emerging economies, one large gap in our knowledge has been the views of those who have the greatest influence over young people: their parents. It’s common to speculate that for instance, Asian parents are unusually fixated on education or that parents in China might be sceptical of non-state involvement in education, but until now we’ve been guessing. There has been a lack of hard data.
That is why the Varkey Foundation conducted the most comprehensive global study of the hopes, fears and views of over 27,000 parents across 29 countries. We found that in their views on education, parents in emerging economies remain a world apart from parents in the west.
One of the most striking findings is that parents across the emerging world spend far greater amounts of time helping their children with their education than in developed countries. The stereotype is borne out: Indian parents spend more time helping their children with their education than parents of any other country surveyed, with 62 per cent reporting that they spend seven or more hours a week helping.
However, it’s also true in Vietnam – which ranked second highest on the survey – where half of parents devoted the same long hours on their children’s behalf, and in Colombia, where 39 per cent of parents spend seven or more hours helping.
This picture that could not be more different from European countries such as the UK and France, where in both cases only 11 per cent of parents spend seven or more hours a week helping, or Finland where the number is as low as 5 per cent.
A similar pattern emerges when we look at parents’ views on university. Around 90 per cent of parents in India, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico place a high importance on a university education of their child. Compare that to the UK, where only 32 per cent of parents place such importance on a degree. Here we see vast disparities between the emerging world, where university and education are seen as a pathway out of poverty, and Europe where, in some cases, higher education can be a pathway into debt with little perceived reward.
But it is not simply the case that education is revered by parents in emerging economies in a way that it is not by blasé parents in the west. If parents in countries such as Finland with high standards of living and high school performance scores appear more complacent, it’s perhaps because they can more or less trust their economies to offer relatively better life chances for their children and because the schools are rated highly.
The picture in most emerging economies is quite the reverse — in Peru, Mexico and Uganda the figure is as low as one in five or less.
In emerging economies necessity forces parents to be more pluralistic when it comes to who runs their child’s school. In Kenya, for example, 85 per cent of parents approve of charities running schools that are free, versus just 33 per cent in the UK and Spain. Seventy-eight per cent approve of parent groups running such schools in Kenya, versus a survey low of 20 per cent in Japan.
The picture is the same for religious institutions running free-to-attend schools. Eighty-eight per cent in Kenya approve compared to only 8 per cent in Japan. Equally, in India, 72 per cent approve of private companies running free-to-attend schools, but only 23 per cent in the UK. Again in India, 82 per cent approve of groups of teachers running such free-to attend schools, but only 28 per cent approve in Japan. Even in China, where one might expect a great deal of scepticism about non-state involvement in education, 71 per cent would support groups of teachers running these schools.
These are not just regional trends; the figures point to a chasm between emerging and established economies. Simply put, the stigma against non-state involvement in education that is prevalent in the west — and socially democratic Europe in particular — does not exist in emerging nations where parents tend to be grateful for a good school place in whatever form it comes.
Of course, there are exceptions. The US is generally much more open to private involvement in education than other established economies and American parents place greater importance on university than Europeans, despite the astronomical levels of US student debt. But that is not the norm in western economies, where parents’ expectations are that education is the domain of the state and that parents and private organisations should play a smaller role.
For all of us involved in education development, NGOs and governments alike, we have to recognise that we cannot look at emerging economies through western eyes. We cannot understand the hopes and fears of parents in these countries through the lens of western debates on education. We have to be open to new ideas and solutions.
Vikas Pota is Chairman of the Varkey Foundation
This article appeared in the Financial Times on 6th June 2018