Can the world keep its promises on schools?

Rural school pupils in Tanzania Long road to learning: Tanzania has been held up as an example of progress

The millennium pledge made by international leaders that all children would have a primary education by 2015 is going to be "missed by a large margin".

That's the stark conclusion of a report published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

Despite an initial surge that saw tens of millions of extra children enrolling in primary schools, the report says progress is now "grinding to a halt".

The report, published in Paris on Tuesday, shows the number of children without this basic level of education has fallen from 108 million to 61 million in the first decade of this century.

It means that since 2000, the percentage of the world's children entering primary education has risen from 80% to 90%.

It's a leap forward, but some distance from reaching the finishing line.

"It is simply unacceptable that out-of-school numbers have stagnated, and in Africa have risen," said Gordon Brown, former UK prime minister and now UN global education envoy.

But he added: "Now is not the time for defeatism and despair," and called on the international community to "redouble our efforts".

'Stagnated'

Pauline Rose, director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, says the drive for universal primary education had enjoyed an initial "honeymoon period" with strong political backing and financial support.

If that early rate of progress had been maintained, the target would have been achieved, she says.

Unesco education graphic

But at the current slow rate of change, Dr Rose says it would take at least until 2030.

Why has it proved so difficult to provide primary schools? If the world can put a spacecraft on Mars, surely it can build and staff enough classrooms. This pledge on primary schools has now been a target since 1990.

"To a large extent it's a lack of money, aid donors have not provided the $16bn (£10bn) needed to get every child into school," says Dr Rose.

There is also a sense of fading international attention, particularly since the financial crisis. "People have lost their interest and turned to other things," she says.

The corrosive impact of armed conflict and political instability has also been a barrier. And the shooting in Pakistan last week of 14-year-old education campaigner, Malala Yousafza, showed the cultural barriers that remain.

There are also distinct regional patterns below the headline figures.

While many Asian countries have made strides forward, including Pakistan, there has been much less advance in sub-Saharan Africa.

The single biggest number of children out of school is now in Nigeria - with the report showing there are 3.6 million more children missing school than in 2000.

Adult illiteracy

But despite the forecast of missing the target, there are some reasons for optimism.

Many more girls are in school - and in many countries there has been a substantial improvement in the availability of school places.

Ethiopia and India are given as examples of what can be achieved, with "dramatic" reductions in out-of-school children.

Tanzania trebled the proportion of national income spent on education and saw its primary enrolment rate double.

"Overall it's a story of success. We've managed to make great progress, but we must not stop," Dr Rose says.

There will also need to be a more targeted approach for those groups still missing out, she says.

The report published by Unesco shows how within countries there are deep inequalities in access to school - with the rich many times more likely to attend than their poorer compatriots.

Among wealthy families in African countries, enrolment rates are on a par with anything in the developed world.

But even the lowest level of school fees can be enough to exclude the poorest families.

It's not only children who are missing the barest of essentials in education.

There was also a target to cut adult illiteracy by half, also by 2015, which the report predicts has little chance of being achieved - a casualty of "government and donor indifference".

It means there are 775 million adults unable to read or write.

'Tinderbox'

It's not only individual life chances that will be lost.

The report highlights the deepening economic problem of the lack of skills needed for employment.

While there has been a focus on getting all children into primary school, in sub-Saharan Africa only 40% of youngsters stay on for secondary school.

Chris Stowers/Panos Despite the forecast of missing the target, millions more are in school. Pic: Chris Stowers/Panos

In countries with large young populations, the combination of a tough jobs market and poor education and qualifications is a political and social tinder-box.

There are huge potential gains for countries that can raise the standard of education, says Halsey Rogers, the World Bank's lead economist on education.

"Each additional year of schooling will increase an individual's wages by 8% or 10% for every year that he or she works, so that obviously has a tremendous effect on your lifetime earnings," he says. It will also bring wider benefits to families and their communities.

"If you look at the experience of East Asia, you can see that education can really transform societies.

"The best way to get across what education can mean for development is to look at an example like Korea."

South Korea, from a starting point of great poverty, has deliberately invested in education as a route to becoming a modern industrial power.

'Resource curse'

The progress of countries such as China, Peru and Ethiopia also shows that there is nothing inevitable about the link between poverty and poor performance in education, says Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

He has also highlighted the curious and counter-intuitive link between a wealth in natural resources and a dearth of success in education.

PRIMARY SCHOOL FOR ALL?

  • Since 2000, primary children without schools have fallen from 108 million to 61 million
  • Half of out-of-school children are in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Nigeria has most children out of school
  • India and Ethiopia made most progress
  • Extra 5.4 million primary teachers needed
  • International aid to education in 2010 was $13.5bn (£8.4bn)
  • Further $16bn (£10bn) needed to achieve universal primary education
  • Donations from US private foundations were 53% to health, 8% to education

This so-called "resource curse" shows that countries with very little natural resources appear to perform much better in education than those with an abundance of oil money.

The Unesco report says that if a fraction of the oil and mineral wealth in some African countries had gone to education, rather than military spending or lost to "mismanagement", they could educate their children without any need for international aid.

But was it ever really going to be possible to reach the target of universal primary education?

Clare Short represented the UK when the promise was made at the World Education Forum in 2000 in Dakar in Senegal.

"What's the point of a target that's easy to achieve? That doesn't change anything. We knew we were taking on something big," said Ms Short.

She strongly defends the setting of the target - and says that it delivered "big, driving change".

She also puts it into its historical context - coming in a window of optimism between end of the cold war and the beginning of the war on terror.

"The world was looking for something big to mark the millennium - the cold war was over, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison."

The setting of such measurable goals also represented a battle of ideas in international relations.

"How do you make the world safe? Is it lots of military spending or is it more children in the world being educated."

So what happens next?

Despite the gloomy prospects of reaching the target, the UN last month said it had secured a further $1.5bn (£0.93bn) to invest in primary education.

Gordon Brown says he wants to "concentrate the minds of governments and mobilise new resources".

"We know it's achievable," said Halsey Rogers. "The question is when."

Are you optimistic about another attempt to reach the goal of primary school for all children?

Unless the Government is caring towards its own people, lack of basic education will remain an issue. Apathy is evident even in capital when you see little ones scouring garbage competing with adults, animals and birds.

Ranjit Kumar, Delhi, India

Having worked on the ground with a primary school in rural, northern Benin for two years, I can say that a lot more must be done than just getting children enrolled in school. There are myriad problems in popping up schools without nations first building a foundation for these schools to operate successfully. At the school where I worked, neither teachers nor directors were required to have completed a high school education. Between meetings and extended holidays, the number of hours that students were getting in the classroom with teachers was cut by an estimated 25% every school year and no program was in place to make up for this lost time. As is the case in many public schools in developing nations, there were too many students in a classroom to teach effectively (avg. 90 in the village where I worked). These are just a few examples of the obstacles that developing nations face in establishing a school system that will make an impact on more than just a few brave souls. Of course, getting youth enrolled in school is important. However, without countries taking the time to develop a plan that addresses problems such as these, how much money will be wasted by well-intentioned foreign agencies in the mean time?

Summer Morgan, Los Angeles

The increased number of children in schools in Tanzania and many other countries is a great improvement but not something to be celebrated yet. While millions more have access to a school, they don't have access to an education. Teacher shortages and 100+ pupil class sizes find many Tanzanian children unable to continue to secondary schools and find work. Children need more than a building; they need an opportunity to succeed.

Aaron Schutte, Bukoba, Tanzania

Without the early optimism, little would have changed. Without the additional commitment, little would change. However, having seen some of the schools, the conditions, and the needs, this time, the approach needs to change. Funding needs to be directed at the urgent infrastructure (physical, human, medical and technological) needs IN countries that are NOT bogged down in mismanagement AND have real policies, procedures and practices to build primary education. If this means by-passing the governments, NGOs and IGOs and getting it directly to people-on-the ground in a bottom-up approach, so be it. The future resources need to be invested in but it is time to change the way it has been done.

Malcolm Field, Japan

I would like to be optimistic, however I am not overly so. Despotic country leaders provide one of the problems. If the population is educated then it might rise up against the power hungry 'leaders' such that they lost their positions. Therefore it is better to keep the population as uneducated serfs. The same applies to religious fanatics, who appear not to have studied their religious books properly, as they try to stop education especially of girls. There is also the question as to what is meant by education. Is it a provision of a means to a better life with relevant skills or is it a mere regurgitation of facts to pass exams - as certain members of the British government want to implement. As an aside I am a teacher who has taught in developed and developing countries.

Jane, Essex, UK

It's a great target, and so what if it's not going to be achieved in time, if it's lead to nearly 50 million more children in school. Hopefully one day it will, but it will need continued media coverage to help ensure it remains a focus. Living in Nepal, and working with an organisation that carries out training for Nepali teachers especially in rural areas, I can see the impact improved access to education has had on families we know and the importance of not just getting children into school, but enabling them to stay in school for enough years to complete primary education.

Daniel Parnell, Kathmandu, Nepal

Sorry Daniel, this is not a good target. Although it may appear well meaning to try to put every child in school, when it comes at the at the detriment of quality the pursuit of this target has very real and disastrous impacts on learning. Not once is learning mentioned and this is an important omission. In Tanzania, one of the so called 'success stories', the massive increase in enrollment since the re-introduction of Free Primary Education has placed unsustainable pressure on the education system that has crumbled. The result has been a severe drop in both the percentage and number of young people achieving basic literacy. When you disaggregate the data it is obvious that it is the poor and the girls who shoulder much of this burden. Tanzania is not the only country that appears as a success and yet languishes in a "crisis of education"; a crisis centered on quality, or lack there of. Education is not about bums on seats, but about interactive and active learning. We need to stop seeing the school as the panacea of education and start to think of innovative ways in which young people can access the cognitive and non-cognitive skills and knowledge they need.

Roo Corbishley, Tanzania

The millennium goals sound great on paper. And that's it! Education doesn't need more resources, it needs a change in the modus operandi, it's not a question of numbers, it's quality and detail.

Moses, Kampala Uganda

Can the world really keep its promise on schools? No! Not a chance. That would require international co-operation, political will, no exploitation by multi-nationals and a strong UN. The world is not ready for that - we're much too greedy.

David McCracken, Hong Kong

I doubt it, education systems need good governance, time and resources which cannot be obtained according to UN Millennium Development Goal on Education time frame. But in this world, no one is just. Yes, education is achievable based on the interest of the world leaders, which I even don't see as their top priority. Instead, they are dealing in wars to destroy what God has created. The most suffering continent is Africa because we have rulers not leaders. It is regrettable!

Mayol, South Sudan

I am not 100% optimistic with this target to be achieved in 2015, however, it would be possible in one day. For intance, in Bangladesh, many children did not go to school about 15 to 20 years ago because of poverty. Poor parents loved to see their children were engaging to earn to survive themself and for their family. Then primary education had been designated a mandatory by law. Where there was poverty, it seemed to be unrealistic law, however, at the same time primary school children were entitled to get ration (normally rice, wheat or money) and then situation started changing. Nowadays, more and more children are going to school, but it is still under threats due to economic crisis.

Nurul Amin, Australia

Being 'optimistic' about achieving any developmental goal is necessary because this provides base for policy making and ensures investment in target areas. A global effort to achieve the goal of 'schooling for all children' is one of those aspects that required to be seen with full optimism. This will benefit all societies, in different, but positive ways by providing a permanent structural arrangement for schooling even in situation of war, conflicts, economic and political crisis, etc. But what is important is the full-fledged arrangement to ensure quality education with increase in enrollment rate as well as attendance in school, and somehow making respective governments more responsive towards these problems. For example, in the article, India's achievements have been shown highest with only '2.28 million out of school children' in 2010 but the reality is different. Government data says that around '8.1 million children are out of school' and of those enrolled only '57% are regular in schools'. Most importantly, this data is of April 2011, more than one year after the implementation of 'The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009'. Clearly, achievements are few. Who is responsible or, to be balanced, who is more responsible for it? I think, the failure of state government in proper implementation of policies and in proper utilisation of resources is the basic factor behind this, as India is not a poor country.

Vikas Kr Chauhan, New Delhi, India

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