Victor Ordoñez, a former Deputy Minister for Education in the Philippines, is Director of the Division of Basic Education, UNESCO, Paris.
About a third of the children of the developing world are failing to complete even four years of education, either because they drop out of school early, or because they never enrol in school at all. For many societies, therefore, development's most basic building block is not yet in place.
In an attempt to renew the momentum of education, the 1990s opened with a World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand. Practical results are now beginning to emerge.
In Latin America, there has been an average increase of about 40% in government spending on education in the last five years. Statistics are slow to reflect the change; but the alarming rates of school drop-out in many Latin American countries are now beginning to improve.
In nine of the most populous developing nations, with half of the world's children, all but Nigeria and Pakistan are sharply increasing resources for primary education (the situation in Brazil is not yet clear).
Internationally, the World Bank has kept the promise made at Jomtien: its lending for basic education has tripled to $1 billion.
Equally important are changes in attitudes: a decade ago, it was rare to hear government ministers talking about the importance of female education; today, it sometimes seems that they talk of little else. If followed by an equivalent practical breakthrough, this will be a major step forward not just for women but for development.
Finally, the 1990s have also been marked by a real breakthrough in preschool education. In five years, the number of children enrolled in early childhood education has risen by over 40% from about 45 million to about 65 million worldwide.
Despite all this, the advance is not rapid enough to meet the goal of education for all by the year 2000.
In part, the problem is the exclusion of so many children by barriers of language, tribe, caste, religion, culture, economic class, or geographic inaccessibility. The traditional response - expanding existing education systems - fails to recognize that these groups are precisely those who find such existing education systems unsuitable for their needs, their circumstances, their aspirations and their difficulties. The problem of reaching the unreached will therefore not be solved by more of the same.
In countries where the unreached are a majority, principally in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, conventional education systems are often not only unaffordable and irrelevant but also alienating to many of those they are intended to serve.
Radical alternatives are being pioneered. In some areas of Ethiopia, for example, traditional primary schools are being replaced by village educational centres - part daycare centre, part primary school, part adult learning centre - where skilled or literate adults do much of the teaching, where timetables bow to the needs of the agricultural seasons, and where the community is involved both in deciding on learning needs and in meeting them.
Where the great majority of children do enter school, the central problem is the poor quality and low perceived relevance of the education on offer - and the high drop-out rates that are the result. And when so many of those who do complete school cannot find jobs, millions of parents and pupils are voting with their feet.
It is not enough to say that these problems go beyond the scope of schools. There is much that can be done to make existing school systems work better - especially for girls.
The sheer scale of the task - providing many years of education for the 100 million children who enter primary school every year - means that there are no short cuts. Steady, unspectacular improvements will have to be made in teacher training and supervision, in learning materials and school facilities, in curriculum content, and in catering for the special needs of the 10% of children in most classrooms who have mild or moderate learning difficulties.
In many nations, such efforts need to be targeted to particular regions and schools. A recent example is the `900 schools' programme in Chile, which identified the schools with the lowest performance in the country and brought increased resources and more imaginative approaches to bear on their problems. A similar attempt is now being made in 19 selected provinces in the Philippines.
Most countries could achieve basic education for all if they spent more on primary schools than on higher education. In practice, this can probably only be achieved by differential rates of growth. India has announced plans to quadruple spending on primary education over the next five years, while increasing the budget for higher education by 50%.
In many countries, aid will also be needed. At the moment, only 2% of aid goes to primary education.
Even for those who are in school, we need to look closely at doing the right things rather than just doing things right. We must face anew the problem of education systems that turn out graduates who cannot find jobs, students who do not wish to return to their own communities, and young people who are ill equipped to cope with either the difficulties or the opportunities they will face.
In recent decades, there has been progress in the skills of imparting literacy and numeracy, but there has been comparatively little progress in imparting life skills, social skills, and value skills. We can produce experts in information technologies, but we seem unable to improve a capacity for listening, for tolerance, for respecting diversity, for harnessing the potential of individuals to the social good, or for strengthening the ethical foundations without which sk ills and knowledge bring little benefit.
In almost all countries, young adults are faced with unprecedented tensions, challenges and temptations for which their school years have done little to prepare them. Often, the very structure and the role models set before them in schools stress one-way communication in an atmosphere of rigid repression and uniformity, rather than participation and diversity, so reinforcing patterns of demagoguery and conflict rather than of openness an d tolerance. This is a poor preparation for life in the 21st century; i t meets neither the personal needs of individuals nor the developmental needs of their societies.
In most attempts at fundamental reform, community involvement has been the key. The alienation and irrelevance of education seem to be related to the fact that learners and their communities are treated as passive recipients - without inviting any of their own input, involvement and commitment. Returning ownership of education to the community naturally leads to a re-examination of its content and purpose, and of its relationship to employment, to increased productivity, to local opportunity and need, and to the development of life skills. It also means that education systems are likely to support rather than undermine family responsibility for children.
By both conventional and unconventional methods, the commitment towards education for all is being renewed. For despite the many competing priorities, awareness is growing that the failure to educate is likely to mean failure to solve environmental problems, failure to reduce population growth, failure to accelerate economic development, and failure to maintain the fabric of society itself.