The 70-year wait for primary school


Aleem Maqbool reports from a school in Pakistan's Sindh province where there are children but no teachers

It will be more than 70 years before all children have access to primary school, says a report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

World leaders had pledged that this would be achieved by 2015.

The report says 57 million remain without schools and at the current rate it will be 2086 before access is reached for poor, rural African girls.

Report author Pauline Rose describes these as "shocking figures".

The lack of education for all and the poor quality of many schools in poorer countries is described as a "global learning crisis".

In poor countries, one in four young people is unable to read a single sentence.

Greatest need

The study from Unesco, published on Wednesday in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, is an annual monitoring report on the millennium pledges for education made by the international community.

But it warns that promises such as providing a primary school place for all children and increasing the adult literacy rate by 50% are increasingly unlikely be kept.


  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Ethiopia
  • India
  • Philippines
  • Burkina Faso
  • Kenya
  • Niger
  • Yemen
  • Mali

Source: Unesco

It also warns that aid for education is declining rather than increasing and is not being targeted at the poorest countries with the greatest need.

It reveals that the single biggest recipient of aid for education is China - which receives aid worth a value 77 times greater than Chad.

The report, based on the latest data which is from 2011, shows that there are still 57 million children who do not even get the first basics of schooling.

More optimistically, this represents an almost 50% drop in out-of-school children since 2000.

The report shows that if the early momentum had been sustained the goal could have been achieved. But since 2008, progress has "all but ground to a halt".

Conflict zones

Countries such as India, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Tanzania have made considerable progress in expanding the reach of education.

There are also improvements in quality, with Vietnam now among the most impressive performers in the OECD's Pisa tests, overtaking the United States.

Hanoi school Hanoi in the rain: Vietnam's school system has grown in size and quality

The greatest problems are in sub-Saharan Africa, with particular weaknesses in parts of west Africa.

Nigeria has the single greatest number of children without a primary school place - a higher figure now than when the pledges were made at the beginning of the century.

About half of the lack of access to school is the result of violence and conflict.

But Afghanistan, which has faced 35 years of conflict, is managing to reopen schools and the country's education minister told the BBC that a grassroots campaign will see all children having primary school places by 2020.

Gender gap

The report, produced by the Paris-based educational arm of the United Nations, highlights the inequalities in access to places.

Dan Saa village Primary school, Niger Girls in a rural school in Niger keep quiet while another class is taught

Girls are more likely to miss out on school than boys and this is accentuated more among disadvantaged, rural families.

As such, poor, rural girls are forecast to be the slowest to have school places, with Unesco projecting it will take until 2086.

It means that the five-year-olds who are now missing out on beginning school will be grandmothers before universal primary education is achieved.

It will not be until the next century, 2111, before poor rural girls will all have places in secondary school, at the current levels of progress.


  • Niger
  • Mauritania
  • Madagascar
  • Chad
  • Benin
  • Mali
  • Cote d'Ivoire
  • Burkina Faso
  • Congo
  • Senegal

Source: Unesco

Within countries there are big differences in access to schools.

And the ability to provide places for better-off children and for boys shows what should also be achievable for girls and the poor, says Dr Rose.

"It shows the importance of focusing on the marginalised," says Dr Rose, director of the global monitoring report team.

The study also raises concerns about the quality of education in many poorer countries.

There are 130 million children who remain illiterate and innumerate despite having been in school.

It means that a quarter of young people in poorer countries are illiterate, which has far-reaching implications for economic prospects and political stability.

Wasted spending

The report estimates that in some countries the equivalent of half the education spending is wasted because of low standards, which it calculates as a global loss of $129bn (£78bn) per year.

There are practical barriers to learning. In Tanzania, only 3.5% of children have textbooks and there are overcrowded class sizes of up to 130 pupils in Malawi.

Gounaka village, Tessaoua, Niger Gounaka village, Niger: Many leave primary school before learning the basics

The study calls for more support in raising the quality of teaching. In west Africa, it warns of too many teachers who are on low pay, temporary contracts and with little training.

The quantity of teachers would also need to be increased, with an extra 1.6 million needed to provide enough primary school places.

The report says to reach the goal of universal primary education would require an extra $26bn (£16bn) per year.

But aid to education has declined at a greater rate than overall aid budgets, says the report.

"One of the things that we found shocking was that low income countries faced the biggest losses in aid," says report author, Dr Rose.

The biggest recipient, China, gains from support for scholarships, mostly from Germany and Japan.

Moves are already underway for setting post-2015 targets.

The report says that the next goals must include an awareness of the quality of education and teaching.

"We must also make sure that there is an explicit commitment to equity in new global education goals set after 2015, with indicators tracking the progress of the marginalised so that no-one is left behind," said Unesco director-general Irina Bokova.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    So few comments in over 6 hours, why? The bbc has suppressed any comments dealing with the real reason many states have poor education. I'm not jumping on the Unesco bandwagon. Truth is most foreign aid is useless as it creates dependancy. I won't say the truth again it will be removed. How much did Pakistan's Nuclear bomb cost? AND they want my money. I'll tell you where they can go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Michael Gove says that education for the working classes is a waste , whats the point of educating someone when their future lies in flipping burgers and asking if you want fries with that

  • Comment number 59.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Every single one of these countries is an ex-colony of an imperialist western state - shameful remnant of an even more despicable epoch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    "Am I right in thinking there is a strong correlation between countries listed as having least learning at school and countires where corruption is the norm?"

    Yes, you are! Corrupt leaders (as opposed to self-righteous autocracies like Putin and the Beijing Boys) tend to keep 'em down, where they belong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    The list of countries performing badly on children education is strongly correlated with countries with poor child protection and the wider social protection. The high level of social injustice in many countries in Africa contributes to the instability in the region.
    Let the leadership in those countries love for thy neighbours children what they love for their children- for access and quality

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    interesting correlation between the list of least learning and the country being an ex-french colony.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Of course it will take for ever to provide schools. Meanwhile they and everyone will not be using such archaic systems for education. The era of herd age based schooling instead of education is ending. You educate individuals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Corrupt 'leaders ' do not want their masses to be educated.Otherwise they would ultimately be removed from power.They deliberately deny children an education for that very reason. That is what is really happening in these countries,a calculated,deliberate suppression of people by enforced ignorance.It is not about cost.

  • Comment number 52.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Young people in developing countries, by this method [see my previous comment], could attain an equivalent education.
    The most important lesson, is that 'there are too many children being born', due primarily to ignorance. This is reckless and unsustainable.
    Most 'education', is not learned at a school, but at home. If you are raised by ignorant parents, chances are you will also be ignorant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Would this be the case if those countries were part of the mainly benevolent colonial powers? Can someone produce stats showing availability of education pre- and post-independence?

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Third comment of mine removed, here is the point yet again:
    The Editor of this article made comment 25 an Editor's Pick, and subsequently removed it after I pointed out that this looks pretty bad on the Beeb, given the content of that comment. Take a look for yourselves, this comment won't be up for long I imagine!

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    So called 'world leaders' are not world leaders but the powerful. There is a difference that we need to understand. They are not thinking what is best for everyone, they are controlling, as far as possible, the global situation to suit their sectional interests.

    Please can can we have integrated education for everyone everywhere and not excuses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Either we are getting more ignorant of the worlds plight or the word crisis is being overused and abused.

    Either way I am becoming emotionally blind to its repeated it use in headlines.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I trust BAE and Lockheed could fund the deficit without much trouble. Or the Catholic Church, or HSBC, or Exxon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    The problem here is that UNESCO and others see education only as a formal 'institution' (academia).
    By using innovative strategies, such as by using modern technologies, or teaching vacations, many people in more advanced societies, would volunteer (for small rewards), that could help to teach simple lessons to underprivileged children.
    Education is not a 'program' or 'curriculum'.

  • Comment number 44.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    #41 My point was that they're generally richer than their neighbours. Whatever we did the French & Belgians were far worse. I'd rather be Kenyan or Ghanain than Liberian or Congolese. Wouldn't you?

    Remember with Belize there were ANTI-independence riots and Britain is still responsible for its defence.

    P.S Honduras was Spanish. Belize used to be British Honduras.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    The root causes of poor education in many Africa can be entirely Blamed poor government policy that depend on foreign aid instead of their human capital and local resources. Some African countries such as Zimbabwe and Botswana were able to drive rigorous primary and secondary education program by ensuring that it is free and compulsory.


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