Ten years ago, in March 1990, the World Conference on Education for All, held in Jomtien, Thailand, with 155 governments and 150 organizations attending, set a goal of getting all children into primary school and reducing adult illiteracy by half by 2000. Where do we stand on this goal at the dawn of the new century?

Over 1,000 representatives of governments, international agencies and nongovernmental organizations gathered in Dakar, Senegal, from April 26-28 to take stock of progress in basic education and to chart the course for the future. The Dakar meeting, called the World Education Forum, was sponsored by the World Bank and the United Nations.

Data compiled by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics show that progress has been made in the last decade in expanding educational opportunities, but not enough to fulfill the vision of education for all. The advances have been partially wiped out by the growth of child population. These also have been held back by worsening poverty, civil war and ethnic conflict, as well as the onslaught of HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa.

* Over 110 million children of primary school age — one of every six in developing countries — are not in school. Two-thirds of these are girls.

* Forty percent of the children in sub-Saharan Africa and a quarter in South Asia are not enrolled in primary school.

* The primary school gap is mirrored in adult literacy rates. One of every five adults in the world, 880 million, remain illiterate. Two-thirds of them are women.

Quality of instruction, reflected in the proportion of enrolled children completing the primary education cycle and in how much they actually learn, remains a critical problem. Fewer than three out of four in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa reach grade five. In 42 countries, categorized by the U.N. as “least developed,” only half of the children reach this level and many drop out after the first or second grade. Reliable systems of assessing students’ progress in learning generally are not in place in developing countries. Sample studies in several countries indicate that one-half to two-thirds do not acquire a functional level of literacy even after completing five or six years of primary schooling.

The gender gap, fueled by poverty and cultural antipathy to gender equality, is a continuing obstacle to education for all. Grave disparity in opportunities exists within countries for poor, rural and remote communities and for ethnic and cultural minorities. With the mainstream of society largely covered by educational services, reaching out to the populations on the fringes of society, whose numbers are large, has become a daunting challenge.

The Dakar Forum pushes the goal posts of education for all from 2000 to 2015. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his report for the U.N. Millennium Summit to be held in September, also proposes the target of universal primary education by 2015. The Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of rich, industrialized countries, endorsed a similar target for its development cooperation strategy.

To avoid failing again in achieving education for all, the lessons of the past decade have to be learned and applied with determination. Minimum acceptable conditions for learning — indicated by sufficient numbers of teachers and their training and incentives, availability of learning materials and adequate classroom facilities — have to be ensured for all children. Governments, voluntary groups, communities, families and schools have to be united in a common effort to overcome the cultural and economic obstacles to girls’ education. Creative approaches found effective in addressing special disadvantages of those excluded from education, but so far in use only sporadically, have to be promoted and applied more widely.

More resources than the average 1.7 percent of the GNP of developing countries allocated in 1998 for primary education will be needed to realize the promise of education for all. But it is ultimately a question of priorities for both national governments and international donors. Even the poorest of countries can find ways of giving a higher budgetary priority to primary education than to many other items in the national budget. The donor countries need to back up the DAC strategy by committing more resources to education than they have in the past decade. They should also encourage larger allocations of public funds to education by countries receiving debt relief.

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