RESULTS’ Campaigns Manager and education lead Dan Jones looks at the latest progress report on universal primary education…

Children laughing
School children in Central African Republic (Credit: DFID / Simon Davis)

A few weeks ago the UN’s ‘Education for All Global Monitoring Report’ team published an update on progress towards Millennium Development Goal 2 – universal primary education. The report was both deeply worrying and depressing. Entitled “Schooling for millions of children jeopardized by reductions in aid“, the short paper is well worth a read. Two key facts stand out to me…

1. According to the latest data available (2011), there remain 57 million children of primary school age who are out of school, denied the right to even the most basic education.

2. Donor aid to education, which has been increasing steadily since 2002, is now reversing: total aid to education declined by 7% between 2010 and 2011. Aid to basic education specifically fell for the first time since 2002, from US$6.2 billion to US$5.8 billion.

Every morning and every evening I walk past a primary school on my way from home to my train station for my commute into London. I’m usually too early to see any activity, with the school still closed up and lights off. But on the rare occasion I walk past just before the start of the school day, I love being bowled out of the way by charging crowds of small children. It can be a struggle to remember that millions of children in other countries don’t get the chance to go to school at all…

The millions left behind

Let’s start with that first figure – 57 million children of primary age are out of school. It’s a marginal improvement on the previous year’s figures – down from 61 million. Every child that gets a new chance at education is a success to be applauded. But with only a couple of years to the 2015 deadline by which world leaders declared that every child would complete a primary education – it’s a tiny increment. As the UN puts it:

This slight dip came after successive years of stagnation. Moreover, even if this rate of change continues over the next few years, the world will still be far from the goal of universal primary education in 2015.

The worst moment to cut aid

That’s the ‘deeply worrying’ part. The ‘depressing’ bit is key fact number 2: just as progress is stalling, just as the world is turning its attention to what should replace the MDGs in 2015, just at this crucial moment – donor aid to basic education is declining.

Of course it’s true that national government spending, whether by Nigeria, Pakistan or Kenya, provides the most important contribution to education. But donor aid to basic education is a vital component, often helping to build the capacity of education systems, train more teachers, and reach the most marginalised children. Now is the moment to see a dramatic step-change, an urgent boost to efforts and investment by donors to achieving universal primary education. Instead, the UN’s figures show some of the most important donor countries making cuts – the United States, the Netherlands, France, Japan and Canada.

 The UK’s moment to lead

At RESULTS, we spend lots of our time calling on the UK Government to improve its spending and policies on international development. But we also believe in giving credit when it’s due. This is one of those moments. We already celebrated earlier this year when our Government confirmed that they would reach the historic target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid this year. We should also be proud of the UK’s lead on aid to education. The UN highlights:

“Increases in aid from the United Kingdom to basic education between 2010 and 2011 mean that the country is now the largest bilateral donor to the sector, taking the place of the United States.”

The UK’s lead on education aid is crucial, and the Department for International Development (DfID) have backed up the spending figures with specific commitments to support 9 million children into primary school and 2 million in lower secondary school by 2015. They have also committed to train 190,000 teachers to increase the quality of education.

But the UK’s influence is not limited to its bilateral spending of course. It plays a central role in the big multilateral donor organisations responsible for a large proportion of the world’s education aid, like the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education. And the UK is also at the heart of the current discussions about the post-2015 framework to replace the MDGs. So the UK has a pivotal role in calling on other donors to change course and come together in a coordinated final push to achieve universal primary education.

Of course, many donors and NGOs comment that the push for universal primary education has been flawed – too focused on enrollment (getting children through the door of a classroom) and not enough on completion or on the quality of learning being provided. We agree with that, and with the current ambitious post-2015 proposal to “provide quality education and lifelong learning“. The UN’s High Level Panel on Post-2015, co-chaired by Prime Minister Cameron, calls for a replacement to MDG 2 that encompasses expanded pre-primary education, universal primary, universal lower secondary and skills for young women and men for work. There’s a welcome focus on quality, with the emphasis on completing education with the achievement of minimum learning outcomes such as, at primary level, reading, writing and counting.

All of this is very important – but it feels tempting to say “how on earth can we make these ambitions a reality when we can’t even get every child a primary education?”. Along with “how on earth can we make the necessary dramatic progress while simultaneously cutting our aid to education?”.

The UK Government has a strong track record that can help answer both questions – they already deliver aid to education focused on reaching the most marginalised, like girls. They can build on this success by prioritising other marginalised children like those with disabilities and ensuring they can access and complete a basic education. And they already focus on quality, such as by emphasising teacher training. And they are increasing, not decreasing, their aid spending. So there’s much to build on. Now we need to inject a real sense of urgency into the debate and galvanise what UNESCO have called a global “Big Push” to achieve education for all both before and after 2015. That will require donors and national governments to focus both on access – to reach those marginalised 57 million still out of school – and quality – to ensure there are enough trained teachers, focus on learning outcomes and strong education systems that can deliver an education worthy of the name.

In 2000, world leaders committed that no country would be prevented from achieving education for all by a lack of resources. Now is the time to urgently make that promise a reality. The world’s children depend on it.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of RESULTS.