Aaron Benavot, Director, EFA Global Monitoring Report.
The new data are in and confirm any remaining doubt: there is no chance, whatsoever, that the world will meet its pledge to ensure that every primary age child is in school by 2015. According to a new EFA Global Monitoring Report and UIS paper, 58 million children, roughly between the ages of 6 and 11, were still excluded from school in 2012. Making matters worse, this figure has barely changed since 2007. So there has been almost no progress at the global level for several years.
The lack of progress is mainly due to the situation in sub-Saharan Africa, where about 30 million children are out of school. Most of these children will never even set foot in a classroom and many of those who do, will drop out. Across the region, more than one in three children who started primary school in 2012 will leave before reaching the last grade. Girls face the greatest risk of exclusion, and account for more than half of African children out of school.
Africa simply cannot keep up with the rising demand for education. Since 2000, the region’s school-age population grew by 35% while it fell by close to 10% in the rest of the world. So in just over a decade, the region was faced with an extra 36 million children, who needed space in already crowded classrooms. No other region is faced with such high population growth.
But while the news is bleak, it should not lead to further inertia. On the contrary, we must use the data to mobilize the resources required to enable all children to enter and complete school and learning well. We should also look for inspiration in countries that are managing to buck the global trend, despite difficult circumstances. From Ghana to Morocco, a closer look at the data reveals that 17 countries managed to reduce their out-of-school populations by almost 90% in little over a decade. How? By combining political will with bold action and smart policies.
For some countries, the first step is to abolish school fees, as in the case of Burundi, where the percentage of children enrolled in primary school rose from 54% to 94% in just six years.
Then there are the hidden costs of education, such as school uniforms and books. Here we learn from the experience of Latin America, where countries such as Nicaragua are providing financial support to families struggling to keep their children in school and seeing enrolment numbers shoot up.
At the same time, there are school budgets to consider. Ghana, for example, doubled its education spending and saw the number of children enrolled in school rise by 70% between 1999 and 2013.
But money alone won’t resolve the problems. We must find innovative ways to ensure that children don’t just start school but complete a full cycle and learn relevant knowledge and skills. If the conditions for learning are poor, children and their parents will vote with their feet and leave school before finishing their education program. Part of the answer, as demonstrated by Morocco and Guatemala, lies in integrating local languages and cultures in curricula and ensuring that it addresses the needs and aspirations of children and their families.
For countries affected by conflict, Rwanda has shown that investing heavily in education as a means to heal the effects of its unrest, including providing special funds for the education of orphaned children, and securing donors to fund a policy providing free and compulsory education for nine years, halved the percentage of children who had never been to school.
Obviously every country faces a unique set of circumstances but the data show that real progress is possible when appropriate policies are put into place.
These messages must not be dismissed. The EFA GMR paper released just a few weeks ago showed that aid to education has fallen by 10% since 2010 – precisely at the time when it is needed most. Some cynics will tell you that this is normal given the ongoing financial shocks. But overall aid levels fell by just 1% over the same period. It is worrying in the extreme to see both international aid and out-of-school numbers moving in the wrong direction.
Last week’s GPE conference showed that the messages had resonated to some extent with donors and governments, but still not enough to reach the Partnership’s initial fundraising target. There is much work to be done. These stagnating numbers must be a wake up call for governments, who must work hard to fill the finance gap by increasing their domestic resources for education. They should take motivation from the positive changes out paper lists as happening in other countries that they could follow. Donors should be aware of the shape of the downwards trend of both aid and out of school numbers. They should take note of the tried and tested policies for increasing access and recognise that real tangible change could be delivered through these changes with their support.
So it is time for action. We may have missed the 2015 deadline but we cannot dismiss our commitments to the world’s children.