UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura

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Some 100 million children
without regular education
By Paulo Bótas, Education Editor

16 November 2004: More of the world’s children are going to school than ever before, but there are still more than 100 million children who are not receiving regular education and many drop out before grade 5 of primary school or graduate without mastering even a minimum set of cognitive skills. In one-third of countries, for example, less than 75 per cent of students reach grade 5. National and international assessments also show that performance levels are very weak in low- and middle-income countries and among disadvantaged groups in some industrialised nations.

The 2005 UNESCO report ‘Education for All’ (EFA) which monitors progress towards the six Education for All goals set by over 160 countries at the World Education Forum in Dakar (2000), finds that significant efforts are being made to increase resources, broaden access to school and improve gender parity. However, exhaustive analysis of research data shows that the quality of education systems is failing children in many parts of the world, and could prevent many countries from achieving Education for All by the target date of 2015.

UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura told City Mayors that overcrowded classes, poorly qualified teachers and ill-equipped schools with scant learning materials remained all too familiar pictures in many countries. “Yet, achieving education for all fundamentally relies on assuring decent quality: what children learn and how they learn can make or break their school experience and their subsequent opportunities in life,” Koïchiro Matsuura continued.

The importance of quality is reflected in the report’s EFA Development Index (EDI), which measures the overall progress of 127 countries towards EFA. The index is based upon indicators for the four most measurable Dakar goals: universal primary education, adult literacy, education quality (using survival rate of pupils to grade 5 as a proxy) and gender parity.

According to the EDI, 41 countries are relatively close to achieving the goals. They comprise mainly industrialised and transition countries, but they also include countries in the Latin American and the Caribbean region such as Argentina, Cuba and Chile together with five small island states.

They are followed by another 51 countries, headed by Romania, Bulgaria and Costa Rica, including many of the Arab States and countries in Latin America, which are well on the way to achieving some of the goals, but are being held back by slow progress on others, notably quality.

Finally, a third group of 35 countries, 22 of them in sub-Saharan Africa, but also including the high population countries of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, are “very far from achieving the goals”, with “multiple challenges to tackle simultaneously if EFA is to be assured.”

The report provides a detailed analysis of the key factors influencing the quality of education, including financial and material resources for schools, the number of teachers and their training, core subjects, pedagogy, language, the amount of actual learning time, facilities and leadership.

There is a clear upward trend on many of these fronts. Education spending, for example, has increased over the past decade in many developing countries, and access to education continues to improve. But there are still 103.5 million out-of-school children, a figure that is declining too slowly to achieve universal primary education by 2015. The report also emphasises that improved access has not been matched by an expansion of educational facilities and resources.

This situation is most notable, for example, with teachers who, the report emphasises, “are the strongest influence on learning.” In many low-income countries, teachers do not meet even the minimum standards for the profession. In Togo, for example, only two per cent of teachers met the minimum national standard of lower secondary education. In Botswana, where the standard was an upper secondary education for teaching in primary schools, only 10 per cent of teachers made the grade. Similarly, a recent study of seven Southern African countries, cited by the Report, “found that some primary school mathematics teachers possessed only basic numeracy and actually scored lower than students on the same tests.”

Too often, these poorly trained teachers must also face over-crowded classrooms. The report finds that in countries with the highest pupil/teacher ratios, “barely one-third of students who start primary reach grade 5.” In many countries of sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, where education has expanded rapidly over the past decade, pupil/teacher ratios have actually risen. In most countries of these regions, the number of pupils per teacher exceeds 40 in primary education and climbs above 60 in several cases, including Malawi, Mozambique, the Central African Republic and Chad. Furthermore, in many low-income countries, teachers’ real wages have declined relative to average incomes and their earnings are too low to provide an acceptable standard of living.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic is another factor “severely undermining” the quality of education, states the report. In Zambia, for example, an estimated 815 primary school teachers died of AIDS in 2001, “corresponding to 45 per cent of teachers trained that year.” Across sub-Saharan Africa, “more than 11 million children under the age of 15 have lost at least one parent to HIV/AIDS”. The report points out: “Their opportunities to learn are often curtailed by the need to care for sick family members or contribute to household income.”

The Report presents case studies from 11 countries (Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Egypt, Finland, Republic of Korea, Senegal, South Africa and Sri Lanka) showing how both rich and developing nations are tackling the quality issue. It also proposes a series of policy measures to improve the quality of education, emphasising that although “there are no universal recipes, a robust long-term vision for education, strong government leadership and a motivated, well-supported teaching corps are conditions for successful qualitative reforms.”

The international community has a crucial role to play in supporting this process. Presently, international aid to basic education is estimated to be around US$1.5 billion per year. Recent pledges may increase this amount by an additional US$2.0 billion per year over the next few years, but this figure still falls far short of the estimated additional US$5.6 billion per year required for achieving universal primary education by 2015.

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