Quality education:
One answer for many questions

Harry Sawyerr *  

Three years before the millennium, 140 million children are still not in school, despite government pledges to achieve universal access to basic education by the year 2000. Many of the youngsters who are in school find themselves squeezed onto crowded benches in dilapidated classrooms, lacking even a slate, while a teacher drills lessons by rote. Over the past 20 years, while countries rushed to increase the numbers of schools and teachers, quality and relevance of education often took a back seat. But quantity is not an acceptable trade-off for quality, and it is time to put more attention into what takes place in the classroom. 

How can we instil an understanding of fundamental human rights? Achieve sustainable social and economic development? Resolve ethnic conflict? Stop gender disparity? Put an end to child labour? Eliminate the sexual exploitation of children? Give hope to a new generation of children growing up in an ever more complex world? 

The answer is education—quality, relevant education that prepares our young people to participate meaningfully in their own development, both in their immediate communities and in the larger world. Education is a fundamental human right—pledged by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Without it, few if any of these problems can be solved. 

Photo:UNICEF/93-1992/PirozziNot only do good schools instil basic skills in children, they also educate them about their rights—and shield them from violations of those rights. The International Labour Organization has said that the single most effective way to stem the flow of children into abusive forms of employment is to extend and improve schooling so that it will attract and retain them. 

It is no secret that most countries are falling far short of fulfilling the promise made at the World Summit for Children in 1990: universal access to basic education by the year 2000. About 140 million young people are currently not in school, and almost 1 billion adults, two thirds of them women, are illiterate. 

The obstacles to education are the same ones that have undermined economic and social advancement: widespread poverty, lack of skilled personnel, top-down bureaucracies, the inferior treatment of women, rapid population growth, skewed distribution of education funds, bloated military spending and onerous foreign debt burdens. But in the end, all the reasons add up to one: insufficient will. 

Education requires a greater commitment than any other development activity because it is not a one-time injection but a continuous, labour-intensive process. It requires skilled, highly trained staff to dedicate year after year of patient toil. It requires quality curricula and plenty of books, slates and chalk. It requires buildings and benches. To provide these tools, countries—and parents—must make the decision that educating a child is worth sacrificing other priorities. Education simply cannot be sold short. 

If the will can be found, so can the funds. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, just an extra $2.5 billion (about 20 per cent of the $10 billion to $13 billion annual cost of servicing the over $200 billion foreign debt) would provide a seat in a classroom for every child. Reallocating one third of the region’s military spending would do the same. Worldwide, if just $3 billion to $6 billion of the estimated $680 billion currently spent on the military per year could be diverted to education, most experts believe that every child would have a place in a decent school. 

This is not happening. In Africa, average per capita education spending declined from $41 in 1980 to $26 in 1985, and in 1995, it stood at only $28. These figures actually underestimate the decline in spending because they are not adjusted for inflation. The portion of international aid dedicated to education declined steadily from 17 per cent in 1975 to 9.8 per cent in 1990, increasing slightly to 10.7 per cent in 1994. 

After the 1990 World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand), countries around the globe made the push to get all their children in school. The emphasis was on quantity—numbers of schools, numbers of teachers, numbers of children enrolled. Those efforts are not lost, but they are not enough. Parents can recognize poor schools and they do not send their children to them; youngsters quickly lose interest when the curriculum and teaching style do not suit their needs. Insufficient quantity—of schools and teachers—is certainly the main explanation for the failure so far to achieve universal access to basic education. But another important reason is insufficient quality and relevance, for they lead to disenchanted families and wasted resources. 

If parents are persuaded that education is more valuable in the long term than their children’s contribution from an unskilled job or domestic duties, they will do whatever it takes to send their children to school. In some cases, economic necessity keeps children at home. Some youngsters begin school but drop out because they are inadequately prepared: They are malnourished and cannot pay attention, or they did not have the physical and emotional attention in early childhood that is essential to the development of young minds and bodies. These problems are well known, and if we are not addressing them, the quality of our schooling is surely lacking. 

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