Education: A Possible Dream

Six-year old Elizabeth Atenio walks two hours every day through a Nairobi slum to get to school. In Brazil's Sertao region, Mateus and his cousins saddle up their mules every morning and ride for 75 minutes to attend classes. For 11-year-old Amal Al-Torchani, the path to her school in Misrata, Libya, leads through bombed-out houses where mines and unexploded weapons are a daily threat.

Their stories, part of the remarkable "Journeys to School" photographic exhibition shown at the UN in New York and UNESCO in Paris, reveal the perilous paths that millions of children tread every day to go to school. They capture the fierce desire and courage of these children to overcome all challenges to get an education; the same desire and courage shown by thousands of girls, who risk their safety and indeed their lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to attend classes, often clandestinely.

They know that education is an essential key to their future; for both improved employment opportunities or the well-being and sustainable development of our planet. This conviction is shared by people of all ages and situations in all regions of the world.

A majority of the 286,000 people who have so far voted in the UN Global Poll for a Better World, chose "good education" as their top priority, along with "better health care" and "honest and responsive government."

So why do we still have more than 60 million primary age children, and another 71 million adolescents, out-of-school?

In 2000, world governments meeting in Dakar set six education goals to be met by 2015. One of these, Universal Primary Education, was also set as a United Nations Millennium Development Goal, to be achieved by the same date.

A great deal of progress has certainly been made, but at 18 months from the target date, we are not on track to meet these goals.

This week in Washington, the World Bank and the United Nations will host a high-powered meeting of UN agency heads, the president of the Bank, donor country representatives and the education and finance ministers of eight countries that account for half of the world's out-of-school children. This will be the first time that this particular group will have gathered in the same place at the same time to confront the same issue. Our aim is to examine -- country by country -- the barriers preventing children from getting an education and to take decisive action to overcome them.

There is clearly no 'one-size-fits-all' solution. Nonetheless, we must make the most of this opportunity for a new, big push in education: to respond to the demands of parents and children everywhere, to find solutions adapted to needs and circumstances without flinching on the quality of learning and to fulfill the commitment of putting all children into primary school by 2015.

This requires creative and innovative thinking. There are plenty of inspiring examples to follow. In Bangladesh, solar-powered floating schools provide education for communities displaced by flood or rising seas-levels. Ethiopia and Kenya are experimenting with mobile schools that follow pastoralist communities, with teachers providing lessons when children are not herding. In India, a partnership between state governments and the Bharti Foundation, provides a holistic education, free of charge, to underprivileged children, particularly girls, in rural areas.

More qualified teachers are another vital part of the response. In every context, they are the strongest influence on learning. Some 6.8 million teachers are needed to achieve universal primary education. Investing in teachers -- their training and professional development -- is the only way to make a dent into the learning crisis. Teachers are game changers.

UNESCO's research shows that $26 billion is needed annually to achieve good quality basic education for all by 2015. While many national governments have increased their education budgets, international aid has stagnated: In 2010 an average of $3 billion only was being allocated to low income countries for basic education. This has to be reversed. Governments in poor countries cannot fill the funding gap on their own.

Finally, top-level political leadership is the driving force for progress, without which none of the conditions above can be met. The meetings in Washington this week must deliver this, and the international community must support governments firmly committed to education in realizing their goals

Getting to school should not be a life-threatening voyage. Nor should it be considered an impossible dream. Poverty, conflict, exclusion, discrimination, distance or disability -- none of these must be allowed to stand in the way of every child's right to education. We must respond to the concerns and hopes of parents and children everywhere. We must put education first.

Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO