An estimated 58 million children worldwide are not going to school, meaning that there is “no chance whatsoever“ that the millennium development goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015 will be met, the UN has admitted.
The UN education, scientific and cultural body, which released statistics on Thursday at the Global Partnership for Education pledging conference in Brussels, said not enough progress had been made in improving access to education since 2007. If current trends continue, it added, about 43% of those out of school – 15 million girls and 10 million boys – will probably never set foot in a classroom.
According to Unesco, the situation is particularly dire in sub-Saharan Africa, where a population boom has left more than 30 million children out of school. Most of them will never embark on an education, while those who do are unlikely to finish their studies. More than a third of children in the region who entered the education system in 2012 will leave before reaching the final year of primary school.
Unesco‘s director general, Irina Bokova, said governments needed to reaffirm their commitment to learning. “Combined with Unesco‘s recent news that aid to education has fallen yet again, the lack of progress in reducing out-of-school numbers confirms our fears – there is no chance, whatsoever, that countries will reach the goal of universal primary education by 2015,“ she said. “We cannot meet this news with further inertia. On the contrary, we must sound the alarm and mobilise the political will to ensure that every child’s right to education is respected.“
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The UN also noted that it was not just young children who were missing out on schooling: 63 million teenagers worldwide were out of school in 2012. While the number of adolescents not in education has fallen by nearly a third in south and west Asia since 2000, the region still has 26 million out-of-school teenagers; sub-Saharan Africa is home to 21 million.
Despite the bleak prognosis, Unesco points out that there are ways to remedy the situation. Analysis from the Education for All (EFA) monitoring report identified six policies that have helped countries as diverse as Burundi, Nepal and Nicaragua to get more children into school. Its report identified 17 countries that had reduced the proportion of out-of-school children by 86% in a little more than a decade.
Burundi’s decision to abolish school fees in 2005 helped the proportion of children enrolled in primary school rise from 54% to 94% in six years, while social cash transfers introduced in Nicaragua in 2000 have enabled families to offset the costs of education, bringing the proportion of children who had never been to school from 17% in 1998 to 7% in 2009.
Morocco’s drive to pay more attention to ethnic and linguistic minorities by introducing the teaching of the local language, Amazigh, in primary schools helped the proportion of children who had never been to school drop from 9% to 4% between 2003 and 2009.
Ghana’s doubling of its education spending drove the number of children enrolled in school from 2.4 million in 1999 to 4.1 million last year, while Vietnam’s introduction of a new curriculum focused on disadvantaged pupils succeeded in more than halving the number of children who had never been to school between 2000 and 2010.
Other, more basic approaches, such as overcoming conflict, also paid dividends: after the end of the civil war in Nepal, children in the regions most affected by the conflict attained the same levels of school access as those in less violent areas.
“These countries face very different circumstances but all share the political will to bring about real change in education,“ Bokova said. “While they have brought about momentous change, their task is far from complete – they must now ensure that every child starts and finishes school while learning the relevant skills needed for a productive life. But today, others can learn from the experiences of countries like Burundi and Ghana: real progress is possible and we owe it to children to pursue it.“
The Global Campaign for Education UK (GCE UK), which is also calling for renewed action on achieving universal primary education, is asking those at the GPE conference to pay particular attention to children with disabilities.
According to GCE UK, which aims to end the global education crisis, about a third of those not in school worldwide – about 19 million children – have a disability. In most low- and middle-income countries, it adds, those with disabilities are more likely to be out of school than any other group of children.
Its latest report, released on Thursday, urges the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) to become a global champion for children with disabilities by prioritising disability in its educational strategy, funding and policies, and by improving its research and evaluation-gathering capacity on the issue.
Although it conceded that DfID had taken positive steps to help children with disabilities, GCE UK said more needed to be done. “The education goals will not be met without a much bigger and more systematic focus on enabling children with disabilities to go to school and get good quality education,“ said Stephen Nock, co-chair of its policy group. “Without such focus, children with disabilities will continue to be denied their right to education – and the government’s promise to ‘leave no one behind’ will be broken.“
The international development minister, Lynne Featherstone, said the UK was working hard to help children with disabilities and urged other countries to make the issue a priority. “Every child deserves an education, which is why all schools built with our support must now be fully accessible and have appropriate facilities,“ she said. “We are increasing our focus on disability and will continue to research how best to get children with disabilities into school. We are calling on the Global Partnership to join us and prioritise this in their own work.“