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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Education for all: still a receding goal?

Lindsay Rae
Lindsay Rae is Senior Education Advisor with World Vision Australia. He would welcome your comments by email to lindsay.rae@worldvision.com.au.

As world leaders gather in New York, the Millennium Development Goals will be in the spotlight. The goals set targets, under eight headings, to measurably reduce extreme poverty by 2015. Goal 2 is to ensure that all children complete primary education. In addition, gender parity is sought in primary and secondary education.

Today about 104 million children of primary school age are out of school, and about 55 per cent of these are girls. Two-thirds of those not attending primary school are in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Universal primary education is far from a new idea, but it has for good reason been dubbed ‘the ever receding goal’. It was formally embraced by the first International Conference on Education, held under the auspices of the League of Nations, as long ago as 1934. After World War II the UN incorporated the idea in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the early 1960s a series of UNESCO conferences set 1980 as the target date for its achievement. The International Year of Women in 1975 saw gender parity added to the agenda. By the time 1980 arrived, the UN set 2000 as the target date, later confirmed by the 1990 Education for All conference in Jomtien, Thailand. In 2000 the Education for All conference in Dakar decided that 2015 was an appropriate date, and Goal 2 was incorporated into the Millennium Development Goals at the UN summit later that year.  

Why have past ambitions failed to be realised? One key reason is inadequate appreciation of the technical requirements of implementing expansion and reform. Also, a gap often exists between what leaders want to be heard saying in international forums and what they are willing or able to deliver once their proposals run into domestic financial and political pressures. And of course in some instances advances have been stalled or reversed by the impact of war, civil unrest, natural disasters or economic shocks.  

Aside from this discouraging history, universal primary education is a more problematic concept than it might initially appear. The measurement generally used is enrolment, which does not necessarily translate into attendance or completion, let alone tell us anything about attainment. It does not reflect the quality or availability of teachers or the adequacy of facilities or resources. Nor does it say anything about the relevance of the curriculum or the extent to which student learning outcomes connect to social and economic improvement.

Given the history of delay in achieving universal primary education, the challenging nature of measuring its effects, and the importance of the other goals, should we be giving this goal such priority?  

I believe the answer is a resounding yes, for a number of reasons.  

First, if we accept that basic education is a human right, then it is not optional. Human rights are inherent and it is an obligation for the community to uphold them.  

Second, now is the time. Never before has the world economy been more capable of generating and sustaining the resources required to eliminate school exclusion. Each country has its own set of circumstances and resources, and one size doesn’t fit all, but we have the example of many recent success stories to build on.   

For example, debt relief to Tanzania in 2001 allowed for new investment that saw a massive turnaround. In just two years, over 1,000 new schools and 13,000 new classrooms were built, mostly by local communities themselves; 17,000 new teachers have been recruited; and 14,000 existing teachers retrained. Crucially for rural schools, over 7,500 new teacher houses were also built by local communities. Enrolments grew from 58.8 per cent to 88.5 per cent – meaning 1.5 million more children in primary schools – and gender parity was achieved. Tanzania is on track to achieve the millennium goal by the 2006–07 school year.  

Bangladesh is another case in point. Schooling in Bangladesh is a massive enterprise, with nearly 18 million children in 78,000 schools. In the early 1990s around 28 per cent of all Bangladeshi children were not enrolling in school at all, with girls far more likely to be excluded than boys. Some successful interventions have included active efforts to recruit and retain more female teachers, to subsidise textbooks and to extend non-formal education settings often run by local communities and non-government organisations. Today Bangladesh has achieved gender parity in primary enrolments, and more girls than boys are proceeding to secondary education. Enormous problems remain in achieving social equity in education, with ongoing exclusion and non-completion among poorer and rural communities, but extending access to primary education is the necessary, if not sufficient, precondition to tackling these issues as well.  

A third reason to emphasise the education goal is that education, especially for girls, contributes so much to achieving the other development goals. Education is not the universal panacea that holds the key to everything else, but its significance is immense.  

We hear much about trade as the key to economic improvement, but without educational advances, poor countries will be condemned to living at the bottom of the economic chain, excluded from the opportunities to participate in the services and technology sectors.   

More immediate social benefits are very clear. Communities where most people experience education are better adapted to dealing with change and guiding their own development. Educated women earn more, and are better equipped to bargain within the household and the labour market. They are less likely to die in childbirth, and are more likely to access health care and advice. The children of educated women suffer less child mortality and morbidity. Educated women are more likely to initiate small enterprises and take a lead in community development. Educated women are more likely to participate and lead in efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis – the main causes of early death in the world.  

Building momentum for broader and better learning chances for the children of the world is an enormous challenge and has many dimensions. However recent experience demonstrates some of the key things that need to happen – debt relief, assistance that is targeted to successful interventions driven by local communities, and an emphasis on extending participation by girls.  

If universal primary education is a right that no one disputes, is so achievable, and promises such obvious and profound private and public benefits, it seems surprising that the goal does not attract more obvious passion from governments, activists and in particular from educators.  

In many ways this represents a challenge for the education community in countries like Australia. Are we equipped, and are we motivated, as lifelong learners, as professional educators, and as citizens to make a difference? What learning do we need to undertake, what conversations do we need to be part of, and what actions can we take, to be part of positive change?


Subject Headings

United Nations
Developing areas
Primary education
School enrolment levels
Human rights