“Keeping our Promises on Education” High-Level Education Event Brussels, 2 May 2007
Reminding Ourselves of Progress
At the onset of this key event let us first remind ourselves of the progress that developing countries have made towards achieving Millennium Development Goals on education and gender (MDG 2 and 3). Net primary school enrolment increased by 37 million between 1999 and 2004 and low coverage countries achieved the greatest gains, averaging 10per cent for sub-Saharan Africa and 9per cent for South and West Asia. This is good progress against a global average of 6per cent enrolment increase in the same period. Similarly progress has been made in closing the gender gap in primary school enrolment, with more than 120 countries achieving gender parity by 2004 and Gender Parity Index rising globally from 0.92 in 1999 to 0.94 in 2004. Again countries with low coverage or high gender gap achieved the greatest gains in gender parity. These and other gains reflect commendable progress by developing countries and their partners through: strong political will and national leadership; commitment to Education for All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals; and improved external support based on the mutual accountability of the Monterrey Consensus and subsequent development assistance frameworks.
UNICEF is firmly committed to MDGs 2 and 3, and has contributed to these education and gender gains in the 153 countries in which it operates. This includes interventions that target the most disadvantaged communities as well as strategic inputs that are increasingly part of the coordinated external support provided to the education sector as a whole. With such systemic contributions UNICEF plays a pivotal role at the country level in partnerships for progress in education. It supports progress in all the 6 Dakar EFA goals, through the EFA movement coordinated by UNESCO; it is the lead agency in 10 out of 31 countries for in-country partners that provide support through the EFA Fast Track Initiative (FTI) anchored by the World Bank; it spearheads gender initiatives with a wide range of partners through the U.N. Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI); and it is now harnessing a strong partnership to respond efficiently to emergencies through the recent Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s (IASC) endorsement to apply the cluster approach to the education sector.
Keeping the Promise is Vital
The promise of increased aid, especially for education and for countries most in need is critical not only for increasing progress but also for setting new platforms to address some of the most intractable challenges of our time. It is vital that in keeping the promise, serious attention is given to the four key dimensions which make external assistance more effective and efficient. There should be more aid that is better aligned with national priorities, and delivered at a faster rate to meet local needs in a more predictable manner. As an advocate for children’s right to education, UNICEF fully supports the transformation in aid that these promises can provide. They offer a unique chance to accelerate progress in education as never before in history, but only if obligations on all sides are fulfilled.
For its part UNICEF will seize this opportunity to increase its efforts to leverage resources for children and their right to education, as reflected in its new education strategy to be presented to the UNICEF Executive Board in June 2007. It will intensify its comparative advantage in working with partners to support: equal access and universal completion of primary education; empowerment through girls’ education and gender mainstreaming in primary and secondary education; and emergency and post-crisis education interventions. In its work with partners UNICEF will also stress enhancement of quality in education at all levels as well as promote early childhood development and school readiness. In discharging these obligations UNICEF will build on its record of success in working with initiatives that cut across several sectors to support quality education for children, especially for the most disadvantaged and in the most difficult situations, with a major focus on 50 countries in Asia and Africa.
An Opportune Time to Face New Challenges
As we celebrate progress and endeavor to keep the promise we also need to be mindful of the new challenges that are emerging. These need to be faced squarely at this opportune time of so much promise for education.
Firstly, while data from official school records indicate that around 77 million children of primary school age are not enrolled in school, we need to be mindful that evidence from household surveys suggest that as many as 104 million children of primary school age are not attending school. We cannot afford to celebrate enrolment rates at the expense of attendance rates, so we must strive to close the gap between the two.
Secondly, success with enrolment has given rise to new challenges for completion of primary education and transition to secondary and other post-primary opportunities for all children. We need to give meaning to the gains achieved so far by investing in “life beyond primary”.
Thirdly, quality of education has not kept pace with gains in expanding access to education and in many situations the experience of schooling is not as safe and rewarding as we would like it to be for all children. Far too many children have to endure sub-standard conditions as part of their education, facing risks to their physical and psychological well being. These risks may come from unsanitary and inhospitable conditions of many schools or from the sudden onset of disaster due to natural causes or civil conflict.
Fourthly, we do not have sufficient evidence of how much learning children are achieving as a result of enrolling, attending and completing school. This ultimate purpose of education has to be given greater emphasis if investments are to produce genuine gains for the future. What is more, there are challenging questions about what children are learning and how well they are being prepared for the world they will inherit. For many children it is already a conflict filled world with environmental threats and deepening poverty. If we do not give urgent priority to these issues, we risk having the current gains swept aside by a more brutal reality of the world that many children increasingly have to adjust to.
UNICEF and other partners have shown in many countries that quality issues can be addressed in a comprehensive manner through child friendly school models and other similar models. They have also demonstrated through back-to-school campaigns that there are silver linings in every disaster, enabling countries to build more inclusive and better quality schools and education systems that can help to heal the wounds of conflict and natural disaster. In the same way they have shown that education can be a major force in the process of restoring normalcy and moving societies from a fragile state to the path of normal development. The challenge is for countries and their partners to have the courage to take bold steps in support of innovative initiatives in education.
UNICEF believes that this event is one giant step in the path of taking bold steps.