Positive trends in education have been achieved in 17 countries, where out-of-school populations, one-quarter of the global total, have been reduced by nearly 90 percent since 2000, says a new report from Unesco. But with progress comes a sobering reality: the goal of universal primary education by 2015 will not be reached. Millions of children — many of them girls — may never even learn the basic skills that are needed to thrive in today’s world.
Worldwide, 58 million children from ages 6 to 11 are not in school. The Unesco Institute for Statistics has found that 43 percent — 15 million girls; 10 million boys — will never enroll in a formal education system.
These dismal numbers are attributed partly to population increases in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 30 million children do not go to school. For children enrolled in the educational system in the region as of 2012, more than one in three are not expected to reach their final year of primary school. Enrollment, however, does not always mean that students are actually attending school or that teachers are showing up.
Countries that are in conflict and impoverished are especially at risk for high out-of-school populations. “Poor countries are less able to invest in their education systems and to improve them due to their limited resources,” Nicole Bella, a policy analyst on the Unesco Education for All Global Monitoring Report team, said in an emailed response. Stronger political will can help to address the education crisis in these low-income countries, Bella implied.
Moreover, it takes time to reverse the low enrollment and attendance rates in struggling regions like West and Central Africa and in South Asia, Manos Antoninis, a senior policy analyst for Unesco, said during a phone interview from Paris, where Unesco is based.
In Pakistan, a country entrenched in internal conflict, 5.3 million children do not attend school, putting the country at the top of the list for girls not in primary school, at approximately 3.1 million. (Malala Yousafzai, the notable young education activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 while going to school, is Pakistani.) The Unesco data is based on a study of about 200 countries and territories that submit their numbers to Unesco annually.
Parity refers to getting all children, regardless of gender, into school. Although globally, more than two-thirds of countries have attained gender parity in primary school enrollment, it is far from certain in South Asian countries like Pakistan and in the Middle East and parts of Africa.
In Sudan, for example, the measure of gender parity, called the gender parity index, or GPI, is .66. Therefore, 66 Sudanese girls are enrolled in primary education for every 100 boys.
Ascertaining whether progress of female enrollment is moving in a positive direction depends on how the world community considers current data in a snapshot versus over a longer period of time, Antoninis said. On the whole, rapid progress has been attained with gender parity over time and girls are catching up.
The Education for All goal of achieving gender parity has been one of the campaign’s greatest successes in the last 15 years, Bella said. She noted, for example, that GPI rose to .95 from .86 by 2012 in low-income countries. But girls worldwide still account for more than half of primary-school-aged children out of school.
“Parity is only the first step,” Antoninis added. Females remain susceptible to discrimination by not receiving an equal education, such as curriculum. In many poor countries, lack of access to education, devaluing of education for girls, domestic servitude of girls and fear of safety for them on the way to classes are also reasons why disparity persists. Sometimes, schools are too far away for children to get there.
Some countries have gotten it right. Unesco reported that 17 nations, among them Burundi, Nicaragua, Ghana, Morocco, Vietnam and Nepal, have experienced forward trends in primary school attendance. Six strategies have been identified in increasing primary-school enrollment: abolishing school fees — in Burundi, this policy increased enrollment to 94 percent from 54 percent from 2005 to 2011; using social cash transfers to assist families with school costs; increasing attention to ethnic and linguistic diversity; raising education spending; improving education quality with new curriculums; and overcoming conflicts by creating programs that provide educational opportunities to children of disadvantaged groups through financial aid and scholarships.
Of the policies suggested, prioritizing conflict resolution would have longer-lasting effects on primary school enrollment, Antoninis said. One-half of all children not in school worldwide live in countries plagued by fighting. Ultimately, a combination of these strategies is necessary for many countries facing severe social and educational problems.
“One policy cannot be singled as being most effective. . . . The important thing is to make sure those who are left behind are actually and rightly targets through various and diverse interventions,” Bella said.
The out-of-school education crisis was addressed at the second Global Partnership for Education Replenishment pledging conference. At the event, held in Brussels in June, donors and countries recommitted to getting all children access to education. Andris Piebalgs, a former schoolteacher and the European commissioner for development, emphasized how the global education crisis particularly impacts girls.
“Denying children — girls in particular — their basic right to an education is unacceptable,” Piebalgs said. He reminded the audience about the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by the militant group, Boko Haram, from their Chibok boarding school in April and who, with the exception of a few girls, have yet to be found.
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Danielle M. Bennett is a former teacher of college-preparatory classes in history at the Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, N.J. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and received both a master’s degree and a bachelor’s degree in special education from the University of Maryland.