New drive toward universal primary education

Less than three years before a turn-of-the-millennium promise by world leaders to ensure that all children can attend primary school becomes due, 61 million still have no classroom to go to.

educationhere has been progress since 1999, when 106 million children were out of school worldwide, according to the United Nations. But momentum has flagged in the past five years, and tough economic times mean education aid to the poorest countries is dipping. Three quarters of out-of-school children live in either sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, and half are in nations suffering from war or political instability, the United Nations and the World Bank report.

At a summit before the spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington this week, officials planned a fresh push toward meeting the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of universal access to primary education by 2015.

The former British prime minister, Gordon Brown, now a U.N. special envoy for global education, convened the gathering of school and finance ministers from eight of the countries lagging the farthest behind in school enrollment.

“We’ve brought funders, we’ve brought the international agencies and we’ve brought off-track countries together in one day to look at why progress has stalled in some cases and how it can be moved forward more quickly, and particularly this issue of how you can deal with the most marginalized of children,” Mr. Brown said.

The United Nations says 90 percent of primary-age children in developing countries are now in school, compared to 82 percent in 1999. The World Bank reports a lower figure for the very poorest countries, saying about 81 percent of their primary-age children were enrolled in 2011.

The advances of the past decade have often failed to reach the poorest children, especially those in rural areas and from ethnic minorities, experts say. And while school enrollment has been increasing, girls face an extra set of barriers, like the threat of violence and harassment, forced marriage and the pressure of chores at home.

“There are a crop of people at the bottom of the barrel still that are not being affected by the progress that’s being made,” said Rebecca Winthrop, the director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution in Washington, which is host to some of the gatherings in conjunction with the summit meeting.

“When you say 90 percent, it looks great,” she said, but broad figures can mask localized problems. “Some countries have hardly any kids in school,” she added.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, President Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank, Mr. Brown and experts from a host of development groups have consulted officials from South Sudan, India, Nigeria, Yemen, Ethiopia, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bangladesh about how to connect with the hardest-to-reach young people.

Those eight countries account for half the world’s out-of-school children, Mr. Brown’s office said. Mr. Brown said representatives of aid agencies and foundations in the United States, the European Union, Australia, Dubai and Qatar were also attending the meetings.

With purse strings tight everywhere, financing has become a major concern.

“Just at the point when we should be intensifying our efforts, there is no doubt that particularly in Europe, a number of countries for economic reasons have cut back” on aid, Mr. Brown said in an interview by telephone.

“That means the search is on for new funders,” he said, from the private sector and potentially through public fundraising efforts.

World leaders committed in 2000 to the Millennium Development Goals, eight anti-poverty targets to hit by 2015. They include halting the spread of AIDS, cutting child mortality and halving the percentage of people in extreme poverty, a milestone the United Nations says was reached in 2010.

On education, the leaders pledged to give all children access to primary education, and to bring girls’ enrollment in both primary and secondary school in line with boys’.

The goals have been credited with leading to a huge effort and bringing real advances. Poor nations have instituted free, compulsory primary education, and built many new schools.

“It really got this idea out that education is every kid’s right, and more parents are demanding it,” Ms. Winthrop said.

Nonetheless, the education targets are proving tough to achieve.

“The progress has been very substantial, but the trend has tapered off in the last few years,” Ms. Winthrop said. “So it is one of the goals that is farthest off from being met.”

Experts have focused on obstacles including child labor, a worldwide teacher shortage and the effects of war and instability.

In many places, girls face particular troubles. An estimated one in three are married before the age of 18. Parents in some cultures value daughters’ schooling less than sons’ and keep girls home to help with chores, or send them to work.

Harassment and safety are also big problems.

The attack last year on Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager shot in the head by the Taliban because of her advocacy of girls’ education, drew attention to the violence that female pupils face in some places.

Mr. Brown has also highlighted the killing in March of Shahnaz Nazli, a teacher at a Pakistani girls’ school.

“This is urgent, pressing, a moral issue of huge concern when girls are being intimidated, maimed, killed,” just for trying to learn, he said.

Adam Short, head of advocacy for the child rights organization Plan International, said he had spoken to girls in Sierra Leone who had reported being sexually harassed in school, sometimes by teachers demanding physical contact in exchange for good grades.

The United Nations reports that boys’ and girls’ enrollment in primary school has now reached parity. That goal has proved more elusive at secondary level, where enrollment rates in general are far lower.

In Bangladesh, studying can be precarious for poor children of both sexes, with boys often under pressure to earn wages instead of attending class, said Selina Amin, the Bangladesh manager for Plan International. During frequent natural disasters, schools become shelters and classes cease, she said.

With funding and initiative, there are ways of reaching almost all children, Ms. Winthrop said. Evening classes can enroll those forced to work in factories by day, and husbands can be persuaded to let young brides attend, she said. Study can continue even in war zones, although it may not happen in school buildings.

“There are examples of kids continuing to learn in refugee camps, in displaced persons camps, sitting under trees,” she said. “There are models that work.”

When it succeeds, schooling makes a huge difference. In the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, Robina, 16, studies science and plans to become an engineer. Her mother, who works in a garment factory, and her father, who sells plastic goods out of a van, have always supported her studies.

“My teachers, all of them are very good,” Robina said in a phone interview arranged by Plan International, which asked that her last name not be used. “I can tell them anything.”

“My ambition is to finish my education,” she added.

As the 2015 target date nears, education advocates are beginning to look farther ahead, and school quality is gaining more attention.

As the number in classrooms increases, “the next thing that we really need to focus on is, ‘Are they learning?”’ said Alice Albright, the head of the Global Partnership for Education, a coalition housed within the World Bank. “There, the story is more mixed.”

-Beth Gardiner, New York Times