The State of the World's Children 1999

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The right to education

An education revolution is absolutely essential. An estimated 855 million people (more than one sixth of humanity) will be functionally illiterate at the end of this century. At the same time, more than 130 million children of primary school age in the developing countries, including 73 million girls, are growing up without access to basic education. Millions of others languish in sub-standard learning situations where little learning takes place.

Children out of school

Fig.1 Children out of school
Source: Facts & Figures 1998, UNICEF, New York, 1998; and World Population Prospects, The 1996 Revision, United Nations, New York, 1997.

Without an education, people cannot work productively, care for their health, sustain and protect themselves and their families or live culturally enriched lives. Illiteracy makes it difficult for them to interact in society in a spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance and gender equality among all peoples and groups.

On a society-wide scale, the denial of education harms the cause of democracy and social progress -- and, by extension, international peace and security.

The history of the education revolution

The inclusion of the right to education in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was the beginning of a broad effort by the United Nations to promote social, economic and cultural rights in tandem with civil and political rights.

The indivisibility of these rights is guaranteed by the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which became binding international law on 2 September 1990 and has now been ratified by all but two nations (Somalia and the United States).

As a result, what were once seen as the needs of children have been elevated to something far harder to ignore: their rights.

Articles 28 and 29 of the Convention require countries to provide free, compulsory basic schooling that is aimed at developing each child's ability to the fullest. Access to school and high-quality education are vital to this. Articles 28 and 29 are buttressed by four other articles that assert overarching principles of law: article 2, on non-discrimination; article 3, on the best interests of the child; article 6, on the child's right to life, survival and development; and article 12, on the child's right to have opinions and express them freely.

The vision of education enshrined in the Convention and other human rights instruments recognizes the right to education as the underpinning for the practice of democratic citizenship. The Convention is thus a guide to the kind of education that is essential both to children's development and to social progress.

The World Conference on Education for All

The 1990 World Conference on Education for All, held in Jomtien (Thailand), set out to accomplish for education what the International Conference on Primary Health Care (Alma Ata, 1978) had achieved for health. It called for universal quality education, with a particular focus on the world's poorest citizens.

Jomtien marked the emergence of an international consensus that education is the single most vital element in combating poverty, empowering women, protecting children from hazardous and exploitative labour and sexual exploitation, promoting human rights and democracy, protecting the environment and influencing population growth.

Previously, education had been assessed in terms of gross enrolment rates at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. At Jomtien, it became clear that as essential as access is, counting the number of children sitting on school benches is only part of the picture. Moving forward, education was to be assessed in terms of its quality and certain other key elements. The expanded vision of education embraced at Jomtien includes an emphasis on basic education, early childhood care and development, and learning through adolescence and adulthood. Essential elements also include: making girls' education a major priority; the recognition that learning begins at birth; and the acknowledgement that new partnerships among governments and groups at all levels are necessary to achieve Education For All.

Modelled on some of the principles that had driven the child survival revolution that UNICEF had sparked in the 1980s, the Jomtien conference established six key goals:

  • expansion of early childhood care and development, especially for the poor;
  • universal access to and completion of primary education by the year 2000;
  • improvement in learning achievement based on an agreed-upon percentage of an age group (e.g., 80 per cent of 14-year-olds) attaining a defined level;
  • reduction of the adult illiteracy rate to half its 1990 level by the year 2000, with special emphasis on female literacy;
  • expansion of basic education and training for youth and adults;
  • improved dissemination of the knowledge, skills and values required for better living and sustainable development.

Jomtien helped move education back to the centre of the international development agenda after the lost decade of the 1980s, when debt and structural adjustments had brought earlier progress in education to a halt. Each major United Nations summit and conference since Jomtien has recognized that education, particularly of girls and women, spans and links these areas of concern and is pivotal to progress in each.

Slow progress on key priorities

Progress towards Education For All has, however, been much slower than those who attended the Jomtien conference had hoped, as a mid-decade review in Amman (Jordan) in June 1996 revealed. There was a sense that a central priority of Jomtien -- girls' education -- and the conference's integrated vision of basic education had been overshadowed by the drive to get all the world's children into primary school by the year 2000.

Percentage of all primary school age children
Net primary enrolment, by region (around 1995)

Fig. 2 Net primary enrolment, by region (around 1995)
Net primary enrolment -- the number of children enrolled in primary school as a percentage of the total number of children in primary school age group -- is a key indicator of progress towards the goal of Education For All. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are the regions facing the greatest challenges in enrolling all their children in primary school by the year 2000.

* Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Source: UNESCO and UNICEF 1998.

Percentage of all children who start school
Reaching grade five, by region (around 1995)

Fig. 3 Reaching grade five, by region (around 1995)
In addition to those millions of children who do not attend school, many others start school but do not reach grade five. Completion of grade four is considered one indication of minimal education attainment. Note the difference in pattern when this chart is compared to the one on net primary enrolment (Fig. 2).

* Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Source: The State of the World's Children 1999, UNICEF, New York, 1998 (Table 4).

During the five years following the Jomtien conference, all evidence pointed to a girls' enrolment rate that was virtually static.

Overall primary enrolment was the brightest sign of progress by mid-decade, with some 50 million more children in developing countries enrolled in primary school than in 1990. Discouragingly, however, this figure only managed to keep pace with the numbers of children entering the 6- to 11-year-old age group over the period. Regionally, the rates of progress varied.

The poor quality of the education provided in most of the countries of the Latin America and Caribbean region -- as well as the social and economic circumstances of many students -- has led to both high rates of repetition and high drop-out rates.

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