Extremism thrives in countries with low education rates, which is why groups like United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization race against time to improve educational access in parts of the world where illiteracy and poverty are endemic. Director General of UNESCO Irina Bokova explains that the pressure drives a particular sense of urgency with plans to provide at least a primary school education to every child in every developing country.
The difficulty of the task became clear last year after outspoken advocate for women’s education Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head while boarding a school bus in Pakistan. Yousafzai, now 16, underwent months of medical treatment first in Pakistan and then in Britain. Yousafzai is currently attending school in Birmingham while she continues to recuperate.
Malala, who has become known worldwide for her education advocacy, will address the UN in a speech later this week.
But behind the optimism of Malala’s campaign and the creation of an annual “Malala Day” is a much more complex global story, with failure as well as success.
In 2000, in the warm glow of a new millennium, world leaders pledged that universal primary education would be achieved by 2015. No child would miss out on the basics of schooling.
However, after a promising start, the program appears to be treading water. Bokova now believes that hitting the 2015 target will be impossible. Even so, the program will continue, with officials taking solace in the fact that the number of children with no access to education has fallen by nearly 50% to 57 million since the program’s inception.
Pakistan alone accounts for much of the gains. At the turn of the millennium a mere 4% of girls in the country attended school. Today, more than 70% are enrolled in an education program of some kind.
Ms Bokova says that another positive outcome has been a much stronger recognition of the importance of measuring the quality of education, rather than simply counting heads going into a classroom.
Among the more sobering discoveries has been that many pupils have spent years in school but remained functionally illiterate.
So in the autumn, Unesco is planning to produce a new set of global metrics to measure what’s actually being learned in primary classrooms around the world. “It will give a global understanding of what quality education means,” says Ms Bokova.
Funding continues to be a major barrier to progress, according to Bokova, especially since like every other agency, UNESCO suffered a large revenue fall-off due to the global recession. Lack of money creates difficulties in putting up school buildings and recruiting and training teachers, especially in areas like sub-Saharan Africa, where there’s an estimated 1.7 million teacher shortage.