Around the world, one in ten children does not go to school. That equates to 57 million children who do not receive even a primary education. When we examine the failings, inequalities – and successes – of our own education system, these are facts well worth remembering.
Universal education is one of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals, which aim to: ‘ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling’. Progress has been made. Enrolment in primary education in developing regions had reached 90% in 2010, up from 82% in 1999. But there is still a long way to go. There are 781 million adults and 126 million young people (aged 15 to 24) worldwide who lack basic reading and writing skills, and more than 60% of these are women. Globally, 1.2 million people are still living in extreme poverty.
The UN reported in 2012 that the world is needs another 1.7million teachers if it is to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Lack of funding for training and fair salaries, as well as conflict in global hotspots, mean it is very unlikely that these new teachers will emerge in time to meet the 2015 goal. Without properly trained teachers, there is no useful schooling.
A programme of education in literacy and numeracy, along with an understanding of simple health basics, can impact tremendously on poverty, bringing communities hope and practical change. Furthermore, believes Un Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, education can be transformative in giving children ‘the necessary tools and skills for today’s job market, bridging the gap between skills and technological power, while at the same time helping young people forge more just, peaceful and tolerant societies.’
Meanwhile, the wealth gap between the super-rich and the rest of the world continues to widen, while many countries are suffering recession, unemployment and welfare cuts. A new report by the charity Oxfam says the world’s 85 billionaires now own the same wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Extreme inequality deprives millions of people of better life chances and fuels crime, corruption and even violent conflict. It holds back efforts to end poverty, with education one of the elements that suffers.
Age-old inequalities on the basis of gender, caste, race and religion – injustices in themselves – are exacerbated by the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, Oxfam believes. Oxfam is not alone; the leaders of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, no less, have all called for action to tackle inequality. The Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane endorses the Oxfam report, saying it: ‘not only speaks to the interests of the poorest people but also the wider collective interest: there is rising evidence that extreme inequality harms, durably and significantly, the stability of the financial system and growth in the economy. It slows development of the human, social and physical capital necessary for raising living standards and improving wellbeing.’
What to do? A teeny 1.5% billionaire wealth tax would raise $74 billion a year – enough to put every child in school and provide health care in the world’s poorest countries. Such a tax is probably not practical, but surely policy makers in the world’s wealthiest countries must tackle this extreme inequality head on, to ensure that poverty slows and education becomes a priority.