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MDG 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs are a set of eight targets agreed upon by almost every country in the world, based on a shared commitment to the improvement of the social, economic, and political lives of all people. They are to be achieved by 2015 and, with two years to go, it’s time to see how far we’ve come and what is left to be done.

The second of these goals is to achieve universal primary education. All children, regardless of gender or socioeconomic background, deserve the opportunity to receive a high quality education. Because of concerted efforts to meet this goal, more children are attending primary school today than ever before, with 570 million children enrolled in school. From 1999 to 2006, the number of out-of-school children fell from 103 million to 73 million, and primary school enrollment in developing countries increased from 83% to 88%. Primary school enrollment continued increasing, reaching 90% by 2010. However, progress is slowing with the number of primary school aged children out of school falling by only 3 million between 2008 and 2011.

Despite significant progress, children in sub-Saharan Africa are the most likely not to attend primary school, with the net primary school enrollment ratio there increasing to only 71%. This leaves roughly 38 million children without a primary school education. On the other hand, 90% of Southern Asian children attend primary school. This represents excellent progress, although it still leaves 18 million children without the basic reading and math skills they would learn in school.

Inequities in access to primary education represent the main barrier to reaching the second MDG. The UN estimates that, without accelerated progress, 58 of the 86 countries that have yet to achieve universal primary education will not do so by the 2015 goal date. Despite progress in many areas, girls are still significantly more likely to drop out of school than boys are. Children from poorer households and from rural areas also have increased dropout rates.

It is important to note that enrollment numbers are not the only indicator of success or failure when it comes to MDG 2. There is no point in getting children to school if there are inadequate teachers or supplies, or if the learning environment is hostile. Therefore, it is vital to consider the quality of the education as well as the number of children attending school. We must ensure that teachers are trained and well equipped, and that children feel safe at school. Students that attend school on a regular basis should graduate with at least basic reading and math skills. They should also graduate on time, giving them a greater chance of attending secondary school.

Many countries have made significant progress using a variety of programs. Nine countries have increased primary school enrollment by eliminating school fees. These include Ghana, where public school enrollment in impoverished areas skyrocketed from 4.2 million to 5.4 million in 2004 alone, and Kenya, where primary school enrollment jumped by over a million students in just one year. However, abolishing school fees inevitably means less school funding, which presents challenges when it comes to providing adequate school buildings and well-trained teachers.

In Haiti, a $70,000 donation from famous soccer players Ronaldo and Zidene allowed for incredible improvements to schools in a severely impoverished area. UN agencies and NGOs partnered with the Haitian government to promote school attendance, conduct training for teachers, and provide 33 schools with necessary supplies. This positively changed the lives of 4,300 children by significantly improving the quality of their education.

Despite significant progress, 123 million youth, aged 15 to 24, still lack basic reading and writing skills. In a reflection of the persisting gender gap in primary education, 61% of these youth are female. Clearly, there is still work to be done. The UN provides several suggestions for continued efforts on this front. More funding, both from governments and from aid organizations, will be needed to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Annual aid dedicated to basic education in developing countries increased from $1.6 billion in 1999 to $5 billion in 2006, representing a step in the right direction. However, it is estimated that $11 billion will be needed annually to achieve universal primary education by 2015. These funds are needed to train teachers and to ensure that they have all the materials they need to do their job well.

In order to prevent unequal access to education based on socioeconomic status, school fees should be eliminated. At the very least, scholarships should be readily available for children from poorer families. Children should also be provided with free transportation to and from school if needed and with free meals and basic health services at school. Proper nutrition and health services will improve children’s overall well being, and these services would help reluctant children and families to see school as a worthwhile investment. An even more drastic step could be to entice low-income families with cash transfers conditional on their children’s school attendance. This could be especially useful in convincing families to educate their daughters, not just their sons.

A high quality primary school education can set children on the right track, giving them necessary skills to succeed in their personal lives and in the workplace. Primary school education has the power to break the cycle of poverty and to empower disenfranchised social groups. This makes the world’s progress towards universal primary education extremely exciting, and compels us to continue working towards this goal.

– Katie Fullerton

Sources: UN Fact Sheet, UN
Photo: Pakistan Today