Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
Image of Hilary Wilce

Why can’t all children go to primary school?

Published By: The Independent - 10 May 2007

Last week, a top-level conference took place in Brussels to push towards the Millennium goal of getting all children into primary school. Hopes were high. Gordon Brown, one of the convenors, outlined a vision of “being the first generation in history to send every child to school.” He pledged to work with countries, charities and corporations to make it happen.

A team of young delegates, who had flown in from around the world to press donors to act urgently on the issue, dreamed of the seeing a big-name donor step forward to do for education what Bill and Melinda Gates have done for global health.

But the result was a massive disappointment.

No-one signed a giant cheque, or pledged to stamp education on the map of the world’s celebrity-conscious mind. And media attention was diverted by the scandal surrounding Brown’s fellow-convener, Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank.

Meanwhile most of the aid money pledged by governments has yet to be seen, and it looks unlikely that the goal will meet its target date of 2015.

Campaigners are increasingly frustrated. Not only are 77 million children still not in school, but a lack of education holds up all other development -- shortages of trained professionals and illiterate populations hamper health projects and economic growth. Additionally, in a world facing climate change and global terrorism, continuing gulfs between the rich and poor threaten everyone.

“Of course education’s a good thing in itself, but there’s also the long-term geopolitical view,” says Simon Moss, the 23-year-old founder of an Australian youth-run development organisation. “Because there’s actually a youth bulge starting to go through the population right now, and we’ve only got five years or so to tackle that. So if we miss that window, there will be millions more people not going to school. And people without an education can’t make good, informed choices.”

Simon, along with five other young leaders, was invited by Gordon Brown to present the youth voice at last week’s Brussels conference after Brown had heard the international team speak passionately about education at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The group had been part of a 60-strong delegation of active young citizens, identified by the British Council, who were brought together after Klaus Schwab, the chairman of the World Economic Forum, had asked for young people’s voice represented. In Davos, they were an enormous hit. “There was such passion in the way they presented,” says Martin Davidson, director-general of the British Council. “And they made such a coherent case. There was standing room only at the meeting.”

In the months since then group has formed a strong online network, and many are now lobbying for global education aid within their own countries.

The six-strong team spoke with The Independent in London before flying out to Brussels and said the issue of universal primary education badly needed more money from both governments and the private sector make an impact. It also needed to find ways of capturing the public imagination. “People are literally dying from ignorance, but the problem is you can’t see that in pictures like you can with diseases,” pointed out Yoo-Sun Andrea Choi, a 21-year-old civil servant from Korea.

They speculated about the possibility of persuading a big name – Google was mentioned wistfully -- to make setting up schools as sexy as eradicating malaria, and pointed out that everyone can be made to relate to the importance of education because of their own experience of school. “It just needs some names to become an interesting and hot issue,” said Chanda Ghoorah, 24, a youth officer from Mauritius. “ After all, ten years ago, whoever talked about health?”

“People also need to know that it is possible. That it is not an impossible project that we’re facing. It can be done,” said Simon Moss. “But we need a real vibe about how urgent it is. We need to have education up there on the agenda. A big push. Something like when Carnegie funded all those thousands of libraries. And we’ve also got to have good and clear communication about what is happening. So that someone can come in and give a big donation, and then say: ‘Look, I’ve invested in the finance gap in Tanzania for the next five years.”

“And education’s really important because it can be a tool for people to shed stereotypes and stigmas,” pointed out 21-year-old Jad Kheir, an Arab medical student from Israel. “If you have good multicultural education, it can help people know about each other and make them more tolerant.”

At the Brussels conference, Yossra Mohamed Taha, a 22-year-old Egyptian post-graduate student, told delegates that there needed to be a drive for both more and better quality education, and an attempt to get more private donors on board. There also needed to be a clear link between investment and outcomes, so donors could see what they were getting for their money. “The world has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to finally get serious about education,” she said. “The extremely large number of children out of school, and the many more in bad schools, should make us all feel sad and ashamed.”

The team also met with the financier and philanthropist George Soros, but failed to get him to come in behind the world-wide cause. “He said that working globally was only about talk and strategy,” said Yossra Mohamed Taha. “He told us he believes in working locally. He offered to put $5m into Liberia if the international community would provide the rest, because he knows the head of the country and has worked with her a lot.”

After the conference, Armin Stahli (a in Stahli with an umlaut), a 21-year-old Swiss student, said the main forum had been “disappointing”, as responses from many countries, including his native Switzerland, had been poor.

And the Campaign for Global Education, the coalition of pressure groups and development agencies, agreed. “The high-powered ministers, the ones that could sign the cheques, just weren’t there,” says Nicky Wimble, of Oxfam.

CGE has named the USA, Italy, Germany and Japan as being at the bottom of the league of national achievement in this area, while the UK is the fourth from top.
However Angela Bekkers, of the World Bank, said that the meeting had had “several promising and positive outcomes.” Additional funding had been offered by the European Union, the World Bank, Germany and Japan, while Unesco and the World Economic Forum announced the formation of new Partnerships for Education, bringing together charities, governments and the private sector.

“Donors often take six months to come through, and there were very good words from Germany and Portugal and France,” said Desmond Bermingham (sic), head of the Fast Track Initiative, the global initiative to coordinate education investment (see box). He also saw the willingness of the private sector to invest strategically, under the new Partnerships for Education, as a good move. In the past, he said, companies had simply pursued their own projects.

He also felt that there were signs in the US that the country could swing behind investing in universal primary education as a way of rebuilding its damaged international reputation. Democratic presidential candidates had come out in support of the idea and some of the big charitable foundations were showing a new interest. “We could be near a tipping point -- and when the Americans decide to go for something, they really go for it.

“I think there is a growing feeling that the picture is becoming clear, the needs are becoming clear, and we just have to get on and do it. We could see a really significant change in the next six to 12 months. And if that happened there is still a chance, I believe, that we could achieve the Millennium goal in something like 85 per cent of countries.”

The global march towards universal primary education

2000: World leaders agree on eight Millennium Goals to reduce poverty. The second says that children everywhere will be able to complete primary education by 2015

2001 – 2003: Studies show that funding good quality universal primary education could cost between $7bn and $17bn a year, with recurrent costs, such as teacher salaries, costing the bulk of that

2002: Donor countries work with developing countries to set up the Fast Track Initiative to fund primary education plans in countries that have a commitment to education. This is important. It provides a mechanism to channel donors’ money into “quality stamped” national education plans, and guarantees recipient countries funding for 10 years as long as progress continues towards mutually-agreed goals – predictable funding is essential for countries needing to invest in teachers and teacher training.

2004: Catalytic Fund, to support countries with too few donors, is set up. This offers countries short-term, transitional support with education plans.
Total aid for basic education rises to $3.4bn.

2006: The UK pledges $15bn in education aid over 10 years

2007: New Partnerships for Education created by the World Economic Forum and UNESCO to bring together charities, governments and private sector. Hilary Clinton helps introduce an Education for All Act in the Senate, proposing a $10bn investment over five years. Research shows that the number of children out of school has gone down by 20m since 2000, and 31 countries have education plans approved by the FTI. But 77m children remain out of school (44m of them girls) and the Global Campaign for Education points out that to meet the Millennium target, all children need to start school by 2009. “The next two years are crucial.”