Follow Us:

Disparities Hinder Access to Secondary Education for Young People

Understanding the challenges facing access to secondary education in the Asia-Pacific requires much more than solely analyzing enrolment rates, but calls for a more comprehensive examination of many and multiple factors—including gender, socio-economic, ethnic and rural-urban disparities.

(c) I.Phetsiriseng

Universalizing primary education has been an important endeavour for all countries in the international community. However, there has been increasing awareness to indicate that universalizing primary education alone is not sufficient to achieve developmental goals. Countries need to expand access to secondary education significantly to respond to the rapidly changing knowledge-based society. 

Addressing access to secondary education in the Asia-Pacific requires the understanding that the region is immensely diverse—including the coverage of secondary education.  In Central Asia, most countries have reached universal primary education with a high enrolment rate at lower secondary. There is high coverage at upper secondary, which could be explained by the fairly developed education system from the soviet tradition.  While in some East Asian countries (People’s Republic of China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam), there is a high enrolment rate at lower secondary with gross enrolment rate equal or above 90%,  but a significant drop at the upper secondary level (14%-36% difference in gross enrolment rate between lower secondary and upper secondary).  

Some Pacific Island countries (Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the Federated States of Micronesia) face similar challenges, as there is high enrolment at primary but low enrolment in secondary education, and Cambodia, Timor Leste and Lao PDR have high transition rates from primary to secondary (above 75%), but low participation at primary—indicating the low actual number of students enrolled in secondary education.  Examinations could be an explanation—Vanuatu, in particular—as in grade 6, examinations force at least half of the cohort out of education.  South and West Asia, nonetheless, has the lowest enrolment rate for secondary in the region, which may be due to low primary graduation rates.  However, Sri Lanka and Iran are the exceptions; they have high primary/secondary enrolment rates and have more or less achieved gender parity.

The wide range of access/coverage of secondary education is attributed to the fact that there are great disparities in the region—including, but not limited to gender, socio-economic and rural-urban disparities.  A number of countries have reached gender parity in secondary education (notably countries in Central Asia, Sri Lanka and Iran). However, in most countries, girls are underrepresented (6 out of 9 countries in South and West Asia have low enrolment rates for girls).  There are many explanations for the gender disparities including cultural norms and school facilities not appropriate for girls. 

In regards to socio-economic disparities, the high direct cost of education (i.e., fees, textbooks, uniforms, etc.) and indirect costs (i.e., income foregone by going to school) make it difficult for many students to attend secondary schools.  The rural-urban divide also makes access to secondary education challenging for students given that students in remote and rural areas may have to travel a longer distance to attend school.

To help increase access and address the disparities, there are many policies that governments can utilize.  Some possible interventions include increasing the number of school places; eliminating fees/introducing scholarships and creating incentives like lunch programmes.  Decision-makers can also diversify the curriculum to include practical subjects such as technical and vocational education; adapt schools to students rather than students to schools (e.g., students in farming communities may be better able to attend school based on a schedule that accommodates the local context) and educate communities and empower women (not only girls) to address socio-cultural problems.  

However, these strategies and policies will be fruitless if not taken from a holistic perspective.  Applying a holistic perspective ensures that decision-makers are making educated and informed decisions.  One possible holistic approach includes the use of a wide range of indicators—not just gross enrolment rates—to identify problem areas. For example, using indicators such as, age attendance rate, promotion, repetition and dropout rate, transition rate, and distance between schools detail a more complete picture of the situation.  Using such a method complimented with policies based on comprehensive data will ultimately aid countries in the Asia-Pacific attain their development goals and attain universal secondary education for all.

For more information about the challenges of access and coverage of secondary education and discussion on possible measures in increasing access in the Asia-Pacific, please read further in Asia-Pacific Secondary Education System Review Series No. 2: Access to Secondary Education prepared by the Education Policy and Reform Unit, UNESCO Bangkok.

Contact EPR: epr.bgk(at)

Author: Hai Tiet