More than 15 years ago, the international community rallied in support of universal primary education by 2015 as part of the Millennium Development Goals.
As 2015 nears, it is clear that we will not make the deadline. But not because it can’t be done.
Despite not achieving the goal by 2015, I remain convinced that providing all children with a primary education is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. The reason for my optimism is simple: Those of us toiling in the field of education for the past 15 years have a pretty good idea of what went wrong and what to do differently in the future.
What went wrong
Before we get into what went wrong, let me just say that we made some good progress – even if we did not meet the goal. From 1990 to 2012, 130 million more children were enrolled in primary education. For a while, it even seemed that we were on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goal.
However, in 2007 progress came to an abrupt stop. By 2012 there were still essentially the same number of children out-of-school as there had been five years earlier. Now about 58 million children worldwide do not attend primary school.
Our successes were achieved because governments increased spending for education. They built more schools, bought more desks, hired more teachers and enrolled more students.
So why the slowdown? Though we reached the children that could be accommodated by supplying more opportunities, we failed to reach the children excluded from school by multiple complex barriers. In a nutshell: We failed to reach the world’s most vulnerable children.
The children we missed are often hard to find, usually because they are very poor and very disadvantaged. Many work to support their families or live in remote areas with few schools. Some face discrimination because of disability, ethnic origin or gender. We also failed to reach children caught in the middle of violence and conflict. Indeed, about half of the children not in school come from conflict-afflicted countries.
What to do about it
After 15 years of trying, we know what needs to be done to achieve universal primary education. We need to focus on the world’s most vulnerable children and make sure they can attend school and learn. And we need to find flexible means of funding learning opportunities for children living in conflict-affected areas.
After more than a decade of work, we have many of the tools in place to get the job done.
One of those tools is the Global Out-of-School Children Initiative. The initiative, a partnership between UNICEF and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, examines data and details about children who are excluded from primary education. It identifies the children left behind, outlines the multiple barriers that keep them from school, and offers policy recommendations and interventions to ensure that they have the chance to go to school and learn.
With barriers identified by in-depth country studies, the initiative is now in a position in many regions to translate analysis into action and offer guidance on policies and practices that focus on the most marginalized children.
We have support
My optimism for the post-2015 area was recently bolstered by the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) 2014 held 2 to 4 November in Doha. The summit brought together innovators in education from around the globe and highlighted “creativity at the heart of education.”
It was also a forum to hear from supporters of universal primary education including Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chairperson of the Education Above All Foundation. In her remarks at the opening event, she called for the world to live up to its promise of universal primary education.
There are also encouraging signs from country governments, many of which pledged to increase national spending on education as part of the Global Partnership for Education’s Replenishment Pledging Conference.
Get it done
As the international community finalizes new development goals for the post-2015 era, it seems a prime moment to recommit to the cause of universal primary education. This time, we need to get it right. And that will mean carefully targeting the world’s most hard-to-reach children with the right initiatives and sufficient investment.
Heading into 2015, we have the assets lined up to ensure success: a shared goal, influential supporters and tested methods. This time around, I see no reason why we can’t get the job done.
Mark Waltham is a UNICEF senior education advisor and coordinator of the Global Out-of-School Children Initiative