Education for All: Rising to the Challenge

“Unless we act now by setting strategic priorities, sixty-nine million children will still not be in school in 2015 and 796 million adults will remain illiterate. We cannot let this happen.”

General-Director, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Imagine a school that changes location every forty-five days — a school that comes to the child, instead of the other way around. This is happening on the steppes of Mongolia where the government provides mobile tent schools for nomadic herder communities.

Further north, in the extreme conditions of Siberia, or further south, on the hot, dusty plains of Kenya, other nomadic children are enjoying more educational opportunities than their parents ever did. 
These tailor-made approaches are the answer to reaching children who continue to miss out on learning, ten years after the international community committed to achieve Education for All by 2015. The six goals adopted in Dakar at the World Education Forum, two of which are also Millennium Development Goals, cover the whole educational spectrum, from early childhood, primary and secondary education, through to vocational programmes for youth and literacy programmes for adults.

For millions of children and youth, these goals are making a genuine difference. In one decade, an additional forty-two million children have entered primary school, with girls benefiting in ever greater numbers. South and West Asia more than halved its number of out-of-school children and sub-Saharan Africa reduced the figure by 28 per cent.

This has happened because governments have made education a national priority. They have abolished school fees, recruited teachers, built classrooms in rural areas, supplied midday meals — often the only one a child will get in a day — or provided subsidies to children from the poorest families. They have levelled the playing field for girls by introducing scholarships, running community campaigns, deploying female teachers in rural areas, and installing separate sanitation facilities in schools. Countries such as India have also reinforced their legislation to ensure that education is a basic, free, and compulsory right.

These advances are proof that the goals are realistic and achievable. They are initiatives we must encourage, share and replicate. But it will take much bolder action to meet the 2015 targets.

Some seventy-two million children who should be in primary school are not. Another seventy-one million adolescents of lower secondary school age are missing out — a figure that translates into low skills, youth unemployment, and social exclusion. Illiteracy affects a staggering 759 million adults — 16 per cent of the world population. Without access to learning opportunities, these adults face a lifetime of disadvantage.

Unless we act now by setting strategic priorities, sixty-nine million children will still not be in school in 2015 and 796 million adults will remain illiterate. We cannot let this happen. More forceful advocacy, stronger political will, better planning and sounder policies are required to hoist education to the top of the development agenda.

The evidence is uncontested — education has a direct impact on health, nutrition, employment, and citizenship. Education drives the achievement of all the Millennium Development Goals because it equips people with knowledge and skills to break the cycle of poverty and shape their future life chances.

I see three major priorities that governments and international institutions must urgently act upon.

1 Inequality is one of the foremost challenges to reaching education for all.

It is not by chance that some children do not enjoy their right to education. We cannot claim success when girls in the poorest 20 per cent of households are over three times more likely to be out of school than boys. Nor when disability, gender, minority status, language, and emergency situations remain causes for exclusion from learning. Today they are.
The place to start is to identify each and every child who is missing out and understand why. Is schooling affordable? Are schools located close to marginalized communities? Are programmes flexible enough? In Bangladesh and Cambodia, stipends for marginalized children have played an important role in narrowing gender gaps and increasing the transition to secondary schools. In Bolivia, cluster schools have increased access to education among indigenous children. Everywhere equity must be a policy priority and a measure of accountability and success.

2 Education quality is the second major challenge.

In too many schools, the basics are missing: desks, blackboards, pens, textbooks, electricity, sanitation, and running water. Most importantly, qualified teachers — the most important education resource in any country — are missing. The result is that far too many students are not acquiring basic reading and numeracy skills after more than six years in school. Here again, inequality comes into play — parental income and education, home language, and other factors are strongly associated with disparities in learning achievement. The answer lies in targeted programmes to improve learning among children who are being left behind, bilingual and intercultural education for those from ethnic and linguistic minorities, and more inclusive learning environments for disabled children. Teaching, meanwhile, has to be turned into the job of the future through adequate training, pay, career advancement, and professional support, because some 1.9 million new teacher posts are required just to achieve universal primary education by 2015.

3 Financing is the third priority, a key to unlocking the crisis in education.

Clearly the economic and financial crisis has altered the whole environment in which governments are operating. It could force countries to cut their spending on education and parents to remove their children from school or simply to not send them at all.

National governments remain the largest source of financing and many can do more to increase resources available to education. But these will not be enough to meet the challenge, especially in countries where education systems are rapidly expanding. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates the financing gap to reach Education for All in low-income countries at $16 billion annually.

Development is a partnership. Ten years ago in Dakar, rich countries pledged that no country committed to achieving Education for All would be allowed to fail for want of finance. But aid to basic education stands at $4.3 billion, way below what is needed annually.

Times of crisis call for solidarity and innovation. Since taking office nearly one year ago, I have consistently advocated for greater support to education within the United Nations and with Heads of State and Government from around the world. I have supported the 1 Goal campaign that has rallied millions of advocates worldwide around education. I have strong hopes that the G-20 Seoul Summit taking place in November 2010 in the Republic of Korea will recognize education as crucial to the development agenda, and to economic recovery.

As South African President Jacob Zuma affirmed at the FIFA World Cup Education Summit on 11 July 2010 in Pretoria, “The most important investment in the future of any nation is education.” Education is UNESCO’s top priority. As the UN agency charged with coordinating Education for All, we are committed to assisting countries in developing high-quality education systems and to seizing every occasion to raise the profile of education on the development agenda. Where there is political will and the right policies, barriers to education can, and do, fall. According to a wise Chinese proverb, “If you are planning for tomorrow, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.”