Journal Issue

Toward Universal Primary Education: Kenya and Indonesia

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
January 1990
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Considerable progress has been made toward universal primary education since 1960: 78 out of 104 Asian, African, and Latin American countries reported gross enrollment ratios of 90 percent or more by 1980. Since then the situation has changed. Increasing dropouts and the high numbers of “repeaters” (children who are kept for more than one year in each class) have made it difficult for many countries to sustain their enrollment gains. These aggregate figures also conceal disparities between and within countries, as well as the estimated more than 115 million school-age children still not attending primary schools.

Even so, some countries—notably Kenya and Indonesia—have managed to not only achieve but also sustain universal primary education. One can draw useful lessons from these countries, both of which have been able to maintain primary school enrollment growth rates of over 5 percent a year during the last two decades, achieve gross enrollment ratios of over 95 percent, and enjoy relatively high retention and low repeater rates.


In the 20 years following independence in 1963, the number of students in Kenya’s primary schools increased nearly fivefold, from less than 900,000 to almost 4,500,000. This increase reflects both the very high rate of population growth in Kenya, reaching over 4 percent per year during the period, and an extraordinary development of the primary education system. Gross enrollment ratios climbed from about 53 percent in 1963 to about 94 percent in 1983. This success seems to be, in large part, the result of a strong political commitment to education with a commensurate financial commitment of about 6 percent of GNP annually. More important, over the past 15 years, the Government has devoted more than 20 percent of its current expenditure to education, with primary education getting, on average, about 60 percent of the overall recurrent expenditure on education.

The large financial effort, combined with increased community contributions to school construction, through “Harambee,” or community-help, has enabled Kenya to meet the physical or supply-side requirements of rapid expansion. However, supply is only one part of the equation. To ensure the demand for primary schooling, especially in the face of rising school fees and the opportunity costs of child labor, the government abolished school fees and increased efforts to improve the quality and relevance of such schooling.

Curricular reforms were aimed at making the content of education relevant to the rural environment where the majority of the children live, and developing basic skills and knowledge. This was complemented by examination reform linked to strengthening of in-service teacher training. Feedback from student performance in examinations was provided directly to schools, pointing out specific areas that demanded improvement in teaching. In addition, the use of distance teaching techniques, such as radio forums and correspondence courses, provided a cost-effective means of improving pedagogy.


In Indonesia, primary education grew steadily since independence in 1949, but the most rapid growth occurred over 1974-84, from a gross enrollment ratio of 78 percent to 118 percent (the extra children coming from age groups outside universal primary school-age groups) with the “Inpres” program initiated by the President. This program mainly involved massive school construction, using the windfall profits from oil price increases. Like Kenya, political commitment to primary education in Indonesia was manifested in a commensurate financial commitment. The development budget for education under the Second Five Year Plan (1974-79) was 12 times higher than that of the previous Plan. By 1978, nearly 25,000 schools had been built, representing 30 percent of all secular schools. Locating schools in accordance to demographic needs greatly increased the efficient and equitable use of the Inpres funds.

Indonesia also abolished school fees. Recognizing the link between quality and retention of students in schools, the Government quickly began placing emphasis on improving existing schools through the provision of textbooks, instructional aids, and teacher training.


Several lessons can be gleaned from the policies and programs used by Kenya and Indonesia to stimulate rapid advances in their primary education systems:

  • Political commitment, backed by increased financial expenditure on primary education, is necessary.
  • Decentralized planning and management, particularly school location and targeted resource allocation, is an important tool for ensuring equity and efficiency.
  • Abolition of school fees or reduction of the direct costs to individual households helps to ameliorate the real and perceived opportunity costs of child labor in developing economies.
  • Increased community participation in school development through local planning, community contributions to construction and other support, and parental involvement can increase the pressure on teachers and school administrators to perform adequately.

The most essential lesson from the experience of Kenya and Indonesia, among others, is the importance of linking access to schooling with quality of education. Contrary to conventional economic wisdom, the demand for education is not solely determined by pricing, but in large part, is a function of the quality of the product. Where Kenyan and Indonesian educational institutions have been able to show improved quality and relevance of curriculum, teaching, and learning, parents have made great sacrifices to send and keep their children in schools. These are important lessons for all countries seeking to achieve and sustain universal primary education by the turn of the century.

Deputy Executive Secretary World

Conference on Education for All

This article is based on World Bank Policy, Planning, and Research Working Paper No. 166 by Nat J. Colletta and Margaret Sutton entitled: Achieving and Sustaining Universal Primary Education: A Study of International Experience Relevant to India, (1989), available from the authors.

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