Education For All: Now Is Not The Time To Back Out

In what can only be interpreted as a major setback for children all over the world, a new policy paper released by the EFA Global Monitoring Report and UIS on 10th June confirms that our world faces a crisis like never before. Despite agreeing that we must strive to see all children in school and learning well, statistics show that various countries and donor agencies have taken their foot off the pedal by decreasing funding to desperate countries, which are mainly in Africa.

Let's look at ensuring access to education -- getting children in school. Fifty-seven million children still don't attend school. Progress has stagnated and is very slow. Countries are unable to keep up with the rising demand for education from its growing school going age population. We can write off the ambition to see every child in school by 2015, which was the commitment the global community made.

We need innovative solutions to make sure children have the opportunity to attend school. We recently co-hosted the Global Education & Skills Forum with UNESCO, where 30 Education Ministers from the developing world reposed their faith in public-private partnerships to ensure no child was left behind. Engaging the private sector is one way of achieving this, and there are other equally impactful suggestions. How can we help them implement such reforms that work?

The next big challenge is to ensure that children remain in school. Enrollment is laudable, but the greater challenge lies in engaging the minds of children so that they and their families accept that the education they are receiving will lead to greater opportunity than not being in school.

In 2011, almost 137 million children enrolled in a school for the first time, but 34 million left before reaching the final grade of primary school. I was in Myanmar last week for the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leader's Summit where I learnt that the average length of stay for a child in a school is as little as four years! How are we going to change the world if children don't even develop the basic ability to read and write?

In my view, the biggest crisis we face in education is that of not investing enough in our teachers. We know that teachers have a huge say in what happens in the classroom, yet their working conditions, salaries and status have been neglected to the extent that teachers can't even be bothered to turn up in many countries. Put yourself in their shoes, you'll see this from a different perspective.

I've recently returned from a visit to Uganda, where the Varkey GEMS Foundation is training public sector teachers in classroom pedagogy, so that they can become more student-centred and focus on how best to ensure every child fulfills their potential. We have embarked on a low cost- high impact program to train over 250,000 teachers, globally, over the next ten years, and will have trained over 5,000 teachers by the spring of 2014.

Whilst private foundations have an increasingly important role, government aid is a major stimulant and accelerator. They provide stable funding that allows national education ministries with long-term commitment, which assists planning and policy formulation.

So, I'm surprised to learn from the UNESCO policy paper that between 2010 and 2011, of the ten major bilateral donors to basic education, six reduced their aid to basic education: Canada, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States.

Worryingly, and most importantly, the aid that continues is not even being targeted at where it's needed most -- at the lowest income countries. Of the $5.8 billion in aid to basic education in 2011, only $1.9 billion was allocated to lowest income countries, which have the biggest challenges in achieving universal primary education.

Whilst austerity is cited as a reason for tightening belts, the reality is that aid agencies and donors need to apply their funds to the most deprived places on our planet.

Yesterday's policy paper findings show a worrying trend, one that should keep all of us awake at night. The irrefutable evidence shows that there's a catastrophic crisis that we face today. We simply cannot rely on a just few key players to secure the basic right to education for millions of children worldwide.

It's going to take collective responsibility and action from everyone to truly achieve "education for all."