The big picture
A girl looks up from writing on a chalkboard, in a tent classroom at Ecole Joyeux Lutins in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Education is a fundamental human right: Every girl and boy in every country is entitled to it. Quality education is critical to development both of societies and of individuals, and it helps pave the way to a successful and productive future. When all children have access to a quality education rooted in human rights and gender equality, it creates a ripple effect of opportunity that influences generations to come.
Education ends generational cycles of poverty and disease and provides a foundation for sustainable development. A quality basic education equips girls and boys with the knowledge and skills they need to adopt healthy lifestyles, protect themselves from HIV and take an active role in social, economic and political decision-making as they transition to adolescence and adulthood. Educated adults are more likely to have smaller and healthier families, to be informed about appropriate child-rearing practices and to ensure that their children start school on time and ready to learn.
Reducing inequities and discrimination
Education based on human rights also helps to root out some of society’s persistent inequities. These deprive millions of children, particularly girls, of quality education – and therefore subject them to a life of missed opportunities. Ensuring equity in education builds a foundation for equal opportunity, economic growth, employment creation and productivity.
UNICEF supports development of national capacities to reduce gender and other disparities and discrimination against children who are out of school. This includes girls; children from poor households or living in rural areas; children belonging to ethnic and linguistic minorities, indigenous groups and castes facing discrimination; and children affected by HIV/AIDS or disabilities.
For UNICEF, equity means that all children have an opportunity to survive, develop and reach their full potential, without discrimination, bias or favoritism. This interpretation is consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which pledges the fundamental rights of every child.
Young children queue in a school yard in the city of Benghazi, Libya.
Fulfilling global education goals
In 2000, governments adopted the Dakar Framework for Action on Education for All. It lays out six broad goals and a number of specific targets to be met by 2015 to address “the learning needs of all young people”. Underlying each of these goals is respect for the right to quality education. As the deadline draws nearer, it is more crucial than ever to break with business-as-usual approaches in order to achieve success, particularly given deep national and international divides in education opportunities, which are undermining economic growth and reinforcing an unequal pattern of globalization.
Two of the Millennium Development Goals deal with education directly – Goal 2, which calls for universal primary education, and Goal 3, which addresses gender equality and empowerment of women. But accelerating progress in education is also critical to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals covering poverty reduction, nutrition, child survival and maternal health. To realize them, UNICEF supports efforts to develop national capacities to improve educational quality for girls and boys everywhere. This will raise the percentage of children who stay in school and graduate with a solid education.
Substantial progress has been made towards gender parity in primary and secondary schools and in the proportion of children completing primary education. School attendance rates are also rising rapidly worldwide. From 1999 to 2008, the number of children enrolled in primary school grew by 52 million children. The number of children out of school was cut by half in South and West Asia. In sub-Saharan Africa, enrolment rates rose by one third, despite a large increase in the number of school-age children.
Shortfall of students and teachers
Yet despite this good news, around 67 million children remain out of school. Many enrol but drop out before completing a full primary cycle – in sub-Saharan Africa alone, 10 million children drop out every year. In Angola, 24 per cent of children aged 6 to 11 are not attending school. Of those, more than 1 million are out of school altogether. About 43 per cent of out-of-school children globally live in sub-Saharan Africa and another 27 per cent in South and West Asia. If current trends continue, there could be more children out of school in 2015 than there are today.
Additionally, there is a worldwide shortfall of 8 million teachers. Primary schools are hardest hit, which lowers the chances of reaching the goal of universal primary education by 2015:
• An estimated 1 million new teachers will be needed over the next three years just to meet rising enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa, and 6.2 million teachers will be needed to make up for attrition.
• To have enough teachers by 2015, Burkina Faso’s teacher corps will need to grow by almost 14 per cent, Eritrea’s by 18 per cent and Central African Republic’s by 21 per cent.
Conflict is another obstacle to education. Globally, armed conflict keeps 28 million children out of school due to attacks on or near schools and fears about sexual violence. Children in countries enduring conflict are less likely to attend primary school and more likely to drop out:
• In poor countries affected by conflict only 65 per cent of children complete primary school, compared to 86 per cent in other poor countries.
• Only 79 per cent of young people are literate in conflict-affected poor countries, compared with 93 per cent in other poor countries.
Re-establishing education after an emergency not only safeguards children’s fundamental right to education, it also plays a critical role in normalizing their environment. This helps them overcome the psychosocial impact of disasters and conflict.
Girls attend a class in Horyal Primary School in the Ifo refugee camp in North Eastern Province, near the Kenya-Somalia border.
Achieving gender equality
Progress continues towards gender parity at primary school level. The regions that had the largest gender gaps when the decade began – the Arab States, South and West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa – have all made progress. Nevertheless, much work remains. In Somalia only 55 girls are enrolled for every 100 boys, and in Afghanistan 66 girls are enrolled for every 100 boys.
Gender disparities in secondary education generally trace back to primary school. In most countries, girls who have completed primary school have the same chance as boys of entering secondary school (although girls are more likely to drop out). Bangladesh has a small gender disparity in favour of girls in transition from primary to secondary school, but it quickly erodes: 23 per cent of boys finish secondary school compared to 15 per cent of girls.
Equity in education
Equity in education has two dimensions: fairness and inclusion. Fairness requires ensuring that personal and social circumstances – such as gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin – do not interfere with achieving educational potential. Inclusion requires ensuring that everyone receives a basic minimum standard of education – every boy and girl should be able to read, write and do simple arithmetic.
The two dimensions are closely intertwined. UNICEF works to tackle obstacles to equity and to overcome the effects of social deprivation, which often prevents children from getting a quality education.
Inequality keeps some children out of school because they cannot manage the costs, do not identify with the content or suffer from discrimination. Children who cannot go to school for whatever reason may be forced to start working too early. This will prevent them from developing to their full potential, reduce their lifetime productivity and deprive society of their potential skills and innovations.
Reaching the most marginalized children is a key goal for UNICEF education programming, and it remains a challenge:
• In the Philippines, 86 per cent of villages have publicly funded childcare centres, but only 39 per cent of the eligible children have access to them.
• In Cambodia, 28 per cent of people aged 23 to 27 from the wealthiest 20 per cent of households have completed secondary school. Among the poorest households the figure is only 0.2 per cent .
• In Guatemala, non-indigenous male children of educated parents in urban areas have a 97 per cent likelihood of attending school. Among indigenous girls in rural areas with illiterate parents belonging to the poorest 20 per cent of the population, the probability of school attendance is only 22 per cent.