The number of children enrolled in primary school, the percentage of girls attending classes and the amount of money spent on education have all soared in the past decade, according to a United Nations report released today, but adult illiteracy levels remain stubbornly high and the cost of schooling in much of the world continues to limit access for millions of children.
The report by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) monitors the latest progress towards the goal of “education for all,” which the world’s governments agreed in 1999 in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, to try to achieve by 2015.
It shows that primary school enrolment jumped by 39 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and 22 per cent in South and West Asia – the two regions struggling the most to achieve education for all – between 1999 and 2005.
Nicholas Burnett, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education, told reporters at a press conference in New York that at least 11 of the 25 countries posting the most rapid enrolment gains during the period had abolished school fees.
Solid national policies and higher domestic spending were combining to drive primary school enrolment, he said, particularly in Ethiopia, Yemen, Mozambique and Tanzania. Aid from industrialized States to low-income countries also rose from $1.6 billion to $2.3 billion in six years.
In total, an estimated 72 million children of primary school age – or about 10 per cent of the world’s children of that age group – do not attend any school at all, down from 96 million almost a decade ago.
Mr. Burnett noted that, since 1999, at least 17 nations had also achieved gender parity in primary school education (including Ghana, Senegal, Malawi, Mauritania and Uganda), and 19 at secondary level (including Bolivia, Peru and Viet Nam).
But he said the goal of education for all remains elusive for many countries, with UNESCO’s development index on this question indicating that 25 nations are far from achieving it. He said this number was conservative given the index does not include nations, such as those in conflict, that do not have available data.
UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said in a statement that: “We are steering the right course, but as education systems expand, they face more complex and more specific challenges. The latest report clearly identifies these challenges: reaching the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, improving learning conditions, and increasing aid.”
Adult illiteracy persists, despite increased spending, in part because of the high cost of education in some countries and the poor quality of schooling in much of the world. As many as 774 million adults, or almost one in five of the global population, lack basic literacy skills – and almost three-quarters of this category live in just 15 different nations.
Mr. Burnett called on wealthy nations to increase their spending to match earlier commitments, and to target their spending more at the primary school level, rather than post-secondary education.
Poor countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, should upgrade and professionalize their system for employing and training teachers so that the quality of education is improved and there are enough new teachers to meet the growing demand thanks to the rising enrolment rates.