Education for All (EFA)
Good news and bad news
The good news is that more people than ever before are getting an education. Worldwide, over 1.5 billion children and youth are attending kindergartens, primary and secondary schools and universities. Over the past decades, access to education has been expanding in developing countries. Innovative literacy programmes are transforming the lives of thousands of adults.
On International Literacy Day (8 September) each year, UNESCO reminds the international community of the status of literacy and adult learning globally. One UNESCO Literacy Prize went to “news waves” a project run by Nirantar in Uttar Pradesh, northern India, in 2009. The project consists of a fortnightly newspaper entirely produced and sold by "low caste" women, and distributed to 20,000 newly literate readers. The project trains newly literate women as journalists and democratizes information production.
Marginalization, however, is a huge cause of concern. Unless the global community targets the hardest-to-reach children, there will be an estimated 56 million children still out of school in 2015, over half of them girls. An unacceptable number of children remain excluded from learning.
Imagine a school that changes locations every 45 days – a school that comes to the child instead of the other way around. This is happening on the steppes of Mongolia where the government has provided mobile tent schools for nomadic herder communities. Further north, in the extreme conditions of Siberia (Russian Federation) or further south on the hot, dusty plains of Kenya, other nomadic children are enjoying more educational opportunities than their parents ever did.
Tailor-made approaches like these are needed to reach the world’s “education poor”, from indigenous groups to street children, the disabled or linguistic and cultural minorities. Inequalities and discrimination are linked to factors like linked to wealth, gender, ethnicity, language, location and disability, all of which holding back progress towards EFA. Girls are particularly affected by these layers of deprivation that constitute marginalization and deprive them of an education. Simply increasing opportunities for regular schooling has little or no effect on these marginalized populations.
Expanded access to education has not been matched by corresponding progress in the quality of education. Millions of children sit in overcrowded classrooms in unsafe school buildings with underqualified, underpaid teachers and outdated or non-existent textbooks.
Education is vital to recovery and growth during and after conflict. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) employs 19,000 teachers and educators. It is one of the largest school systems in the Middle East. A great number of UNRWA teachers and students work in extremely challenging circumstances. Seventy per cent of UNWRA schools are on double shifts. Many operate in unsuitable buildings. Most of the schools in Gaza (occupied Palestinian territory) which were damaged in the January 2009 bombings have not been repaired because building supplies are affected by the blockade. Such conditions make it difficult for the refugee children to receive a proper education.
Along with unequal access to schooling, other obstacles in the path of EFA include the ever-present gender gap, the ongoing quality crisis, piecemeal education planning and the current economic and financial crisis which threatens to undermine recent hard-won gains in education. Only if governments understand these obstacles can they come up with effective policies to overcome them.