Achieving universal primary education

IMG_3822 (1)In the year 2000, the United Nations Millennium Summit established eight goals for improving the lives of the millions around the world suffering poverty, hunger, disease and the effects of environmental degradation. Thousands of NGOs and civil society organisations took part in the process that drew up these Millennium Development Goals, and every single UN member nation (189 at the time) committed to achieving them by 2015.

Goal 2 was to ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.

A lot of progress was made early on. By 2012, Northern Africa had almost achieved universal primary education, while in Oceania enrolment rates rose from 69% to 89%.* However, the last few years have seen progress stall, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, in part because of rapid population growth, partly because of reduced funding, and also because of armed conflicts and other emergencies, with the result that 58 million primary school-age children remain out of school today.*

Even when there is an educational infrastructure in place and attendance is compulsory, there are many reasons why children may not attend school (or may enrol but drop out). These include:

  • Location – Children may live far from their nearest school or the school may be difficult to get to, especially in rural or mountainous areas or during times of severe weather.
  • Gender – Many countries report significantly lower rates of enrolment for girls than boys. This may be because their education is not valued as highly as that of boys, or because they are needed at home, but in some regions it is simply because it is too dangerous to allow girls to make the journey to and from the school itself.
  • Cost – As well as being unable to pay school fees, parents may need to send their children out to work simply in order to make ends meet.
  • Language – The medium of instruction may not be the child’s home language but the official language or the language of a different ethnic group.
  • Disability – There are rarely systems in place for inclusive, special-needs education, which either prevents children with disabilities from attending school or slows their progress.
  • Conflict – Many children are denied an education by armed conflict, either because the conflict disrupts or destroys the infrastructure or because it makes it too dangerous for them to be out of home. To compound this, there is generally little if any education provision for the tens of thousands of children in refugee camps.

A pressing concern in many countries is a severe lack of teachers (in Chad, for example, there is only one teacher for every 1,800 pre-primary school children). Many are also poorly trained, in some countries having completed nothing beyond their own primary education and a basic training course.

Perhaps the most direct consequence of a lack of basic education is the inability to read or write. As of 2012, 781 million adults and 126 million youth worldwide lacked basic literacy, six out of every ten of whom are women.* Deprived of even this most fundamental skill, an individual’s opportunity for improving his or her life is severely limited. But where there is basic education, employment opportunities are increased, income levels rise and the health of mothers and infant children is improved.

The 2015 MDG deadline has now been reached, but this does not mean that the drive for universal primary education is going to slow down. More information about what is being done to continue the effort can be found at UNICEF, UNESCO and the Global Campaign for Education. To quote UNICEF, “Universal access to quality education is not a privilege – it is a basic human right.”

_MG_2462 (1)Teachers interested in raising awareness of these issues with their own students will find classroom resources here and here. There is also a 12-year documentary project by PBS – Time for School – that follows seven children from different countries who are struggling to achieve a basic education.

* These figures are taken from the official UN 2014 report.


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