Even with a sudden spurt of enrolment, it would be impossible to reach universal primary education by 2015, says Pauline Rose, director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, an independent team that keeps track of education progress on behalf of UNESCO.
“There’s definitely a need to complete the unfinished business,” Ms. Rose says by telephone from Paris. She admits that previous efforts at getting children into schools might not have addressed the students who needed the most attention.
“There’s a need for goals that track progress by inequality and by the most disadvantaged group,” she says. “The greatest failings of the current goals is that they look at averages and mask the real problems. At the same time, it’s not just a case of not being able to complete school, but actually learning while there.”
Africa’s sub-Saharan region is usually considered as a separate entity from North Africa, where the the Sahara Desert’s great divide has made it more geographically and culturally aligned with the Arab world. Globally, sub-Saharan Africa has had the biggest struggle in getting more children enrolled in primary school – the number of out-of-school children has hovered around 30 million for the past five years, with a full third of those children living in Nigeria.
“Despite widespread economic growth on the continent,” Ms. Rose says, access to education “has still not really made it to the poorest in those countries.”
Bob Prouty, lead education specialist with the World Bank in Washington, says that future action on education might best address the demand side of the equation – why parents aren’t sending their children to school – rather than simply focusing on supply by building schools and hiring teachers.
“You have to do the hard slogging, rolling up your sleeves to figure out who these kids are and why they aren’t there,” Mr. Prouty says. “There will inevitably be kids on the margins.”
School as a second thought
When Violet Akinyi’s mother died, she was left with her father and his new wife, who wasn’t interested in seeing her get an education.
“The woman was so cruel,” Violet says. “She always made me do all the house chores – to fetch water, to look for firewood. ... That really made it difficult to go to school.”
Violet’s aunt eventually took her from her village to Nairobi, where she is now a Grade 8 student at Ngunyumu Primary School in the city’s Korogocho slum. “I’m really grateful,” she says. “Many people are struggling.”
That includes many of the children that are supposed to be in her school. Ngunyumu is a stone’s throw from the Dandora dump, Nairobi’s only landfill, and the parents of Korogocho will regularly – sometimes daily – send their children to pick through the garbage, finding items to sell on the side of the slum’s roads so their families can afford to live.
Some barriers to getting an education, like school quality, distance to school and enrolment fees, are gradually shrinking as new facilities are built and governments abolish school fees. In some lucky communities, like Narok South in Kenya, charities and NGOs are building self-sustaining schools for communities to replace tattered structures (and sometimes, literally the shade of a tree) to give kids room to learn. And enrolment rose in countries including Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ghana, for instance, after they abolished fees, according to the United Nations.
But most communities don’t have benefactors like Free the Children, who not only build new schoolrooms, but develop self-sustaining programs with communities to make students healthier and more easily able to attend school. And cutting fees addresses only one barrier to education. It doesn’t stop the cycle of poverty for slum children who need to pick garbage, or children in rural communities who need to walk a kilometre or more to get water for their families.
Many students survive on one meal a day – if that – and can’t justify going to school unless food is served; otherwise, their time is better spent finding it themselves.
And while higher enrolment numbers look good on paper, it doesn’t guarantee those students are getting educated. South Narok’s Pimbiniet Primary School isn’t alone in needing more textbooks, for instance: While some countries including Mali and Niger have enough books, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics finds that there is only one reading text for every 11 students in Cameroon, and one math book for every 13 students in the Central African Republic.