What can be done to educate the 250 million children, mostly in South Asia, West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, who lack basic reading and math skills by the time they reach adulthood? The answer to this global learning crisis, a new United Nations report says, is that governments must spend more money to provide quality education to both teachers and the children they teach. The failure of offering quality education costs $129 billion yearly worldwide, and in marginalized countries, the situation is abysmal.
The report features other jarring statistics, as of 2011: 57 million children of primary-school age are not in school; 69 million adolescents are out of school; only 37 percent of adolescents from low-income countries achieve lower-secondary education; and 774 million adults remain illiterate.
These solutions are reiterated throughout the 2013-14 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, produced by Unesco (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which emphasizes that the educational goals established more than a decade ago to address the worldwide learning crisis will not be achieved by the deadline of 2015. That is because opportunities and resources, including high-quality educators and schools, are still denied to the most marginalized and disadvantaged people in many regions. An independent research team conducted the research and data provided in the report for the Paris-based UN agency.
From the start, the goals were ambitious but not unrealistic, Vibeke Jensen, Unesco’s representative in New York, said in a phone interview. “I think we could have gone further if we had sufficient funds to do it and if the political world prioritized it.”
The six Education for All targets established in Dakar, Senegal, in 2000 prioritized early childhood care and education; universal primary education; youth and adult skills; adult literacy; gender parity; and equality and quality of education. The report finds more startling updates on the goals, demonstrating over all how much further governments must go to ensure equal education for their citizens.
As to the first goal, pre-primary education enrollment of 80 percent for each reporting country by 2015, some progress has been made. As of 2011, 37 percent of 141 reporting countries reached the target. But it is expected that only half of the countries will reach the target by 2015.
Gender disparities persist in many countries on most of the goals. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is projected that if universal primary education trends continue, the richest boys will complete universal primary education in 2021, but the poorest girls won’t complete until 2086. As to adult illiteracy, two-thirds are women; the poorest of those from developing countries may not achieve universal literacy until 2017.
At a January press conference to discuss the report, Jensen addressed questions about the alarming goal projections for 2015. She said that among positive trends, however, universal primary and secondary enrollment and gender parity on the primary level had been achieved in some countries.
As to increased student enrollment, Ethiopia experienced a surge to 15.5 million by 2008-2009, from three million students in 1994-1995. The increase was attributed to the government’s work on reducing poverty, expanding public education and increasing national spending on education and secure foreign aid.
In Bangladesh, enrollment, particularly among girls, increased through improved government policies and projects providing stipends as well as free secondary education for girls. Female enrollment in Bangladesh rose to 60 percent in 2005 from 25 percent in 1992, making it one of only three developing countries in the report where girls outnumbered boys in secondary education.
“We should celebrate what has been achieved over the past 10 years, but the global monitoring report’s job is to highlight where the gaps are and to help us zoom in on the points where we need to make an extra effort,” Jensen said.
One large gap is found in the poorest pockets of sub-Saharan Africa, where 20 percent of children reach the end of primary school without knowing basic math and reading. To address the crisis, the report calls on governments to invest more in their education budgets. Currently, education is underfinanced by $26 billion a year worldwide.
“Governments will have to continue to invest in education and raise other spending on education,” Jensen said. In 2011, only 25 of 138 countries with recorded data spent more than 20 percent of their national budget on education. The West African country of Benin led in education spending for 2011 at roughly 28 percent.
The report recommends that countries reserve at least 6 percent of their gross national product for education going forward; the Dakar education framework goals did not make any such recommendation originally. But government spending on education could decline, the report says, citing the fact that of the 49 countries with data in 2012, 25 had planned to shrink their education budgets from 2011 to 2012. Of these, 16 were in sub-Saharan Africa.
Three UN agencies and entities — Unesco, Unicef’s Global Compact for Education and the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Global Education, led by Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister — collaborated to produce guidelines for private-sector contributions to global education. The majority of funds for education, however, still need to come from national governments, Jensen said.
Governments also need to recruit more teachers, the report says. Jensen agrees. “Governments need to put in place a range of national policies and strategies to get and retain highly qualified teachers.”
At the January press briefing, Jensen said that 5.2 million teachers need to be recruited by 2015 to provide children their “right to a universal free and quality education.”
In one-third of the countries analyzed in the report, less than three-quarters of primary schools had teachers trained to meet national standards. To prevent another decade where 250 million children lack basic reading and math skills, the report recommends hiring teachers with at least a secondary education and who reflect the diversity of their student population; train teachers in pedagogy and content-specific programs to provide more practical experience; emphasize using technology to mentors and in professional development; offer government-financed incentives to teachers to encourage them to work in low-income areas; and improve working conditions and contract terms for teachers, who often toil in substandard conditions.
“I think it’s a package,” Jensen said. In most countries, she added, at least part of each strategy must be carried out. She would like to see quality education become an agenda item pushed forward in the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals landscape.
“If we don’t put an emphasis on quality education for all, we will not be able to move on many of the other sustainable development challenges. Education must be a driver of positive change,” she said.