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Achieving universal primary education across the globe. Simple? Far from it.

I was due to take part in a TV debate last week about the likelihood that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on education will be missed. I’d thought about what I wanted to say, considered the likely perspective of the other debate participants, and jotted down the questions we might be asked. Then, at the last minute, it was cancelled! Well, such is life – but I thought I might as well put the thinking I’d done to good use by penning a blog post on the subject.

First – a recap of the issue.The education MDG is simple: that by 2015 there will be universal primary education across the globe. Every single child on the planet will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.

Progress has certainly been made. In 1990, 140 million primary-age children did not go to school. In 2005, the number had dropped to 72 million. By 2011, it had dropped again to 57 million. Primary education enrolment in developing countries had climbed from 83% in 2000 to 90% in 2010. This has been achieved against a backdrop of rising population.

But. And there is a big but.

Progress has stalled. The rate of improvement has slowed to a trickle in the latter years.

Progress is uneven. While some countries have stormed ahead, others have made very little progress – particularly the most vulnerable countries, such as least developed nations, small islands or countries that are landlocked, and countries emerging from conflict.

In essence, the ‘easy wins’ on primary enrolment have been had – and the task of finishing the job has got bogged down in difficulties. This highlights the interconnected nature of under-development – poverty, inequality, lack of resilience, and conflict are all factors which can lead to poor education as well as being its consequence. Interestingly, the World Bank claims its research shows that spending more money on education isn’t the answer – that there’s a weak correlation between public spending and educational outcomes. (Others will respond, ‘The World Bank would say that, wouldn’t it!’)

The ‘but’ gets bigger still.

Primary enrolment only scratches the surface. Even if the children go to school, that’s of little use if the quality of learning is so poor that the children leave without being able to read or do simple maths. According to the UN, even after four years of primary schooling, this is the case for 250 million children worldwide. Then there is the issue of the children remaining enrolled. Again according to the UN, of the 137 million children who entered first grade of primary school in 2011, 34 million are likely to leave before the end of primary school – a drop-out rate of 25%. (There’s a useful UN factsheet on the education MDG with much of this information.)

The ethos of Think Global is that global issues rarely have simple solutions – that the more people understand the nuances of the issues, the more they will have the capabilities to make decisions for themselves. We get concerned that global issues can be oversimplified (see my recent blog on ‘clicktivism’).

The MDG on education is an interesting case. On the one hand, the simplicity of the MDG – and its simple fairness – means that it has helped to attract attention to the scandal of children not receiving primary schooling. It has been a global motivator. On the other hand, it could be said that it over-simplifies a complex issue, hasn’t addressed some of the root causes why so many children lack even basic education, and so creates distortions. The failure of the global community to achieve such an apparently ‘simple’ goal can leave people de-motivated and feeling helpless. The way that the replacement to the MDGs are being crafted – with more emphasis on inclusion, and sustainability – suggests this concern is widely shared. But will the attraction of simplicity again trump more nuanced goals?

Photo of Tom Franklin

By Tom Franklin, CEO, Think Global

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