Education is a global priority; Podium

Oxfam's senior policy adviser, addressing an Oxfam/Co-operative Society meeting
IN 1820 William Lovett, one of the founding fathers of Chartism and the co-operative movement, recalled how literacy and access to education had transformed his life.

"My mind," he wrote, "seemed to be awakened to a new mental existence; new feelings, hopes and aspirations sprang up within me."

Lovett spent much of his time campaigning for the principle that the state should provide citizens with an education. Two centuries on, that principle has been enshrined in the UN Charter, but the right to education is being violated on a massive scale.

Ten years ago, at the World Conference on Education for All, the world's governments pledged that all children would be provided with a primary education by the year 2000. As the deadline approaches, they have fallen shamefully short of their target.

Today, 125 million children of primary school age, "two-thirds of them girls" are out of school - a colossal waste of talent, and a cast-iron guarantee that poverty will be transmitted to the next generation.

We cannot afford to tolerate the social, economic and democratic deficits fuelled by the exclusion from education. Moreover, the history of the struggle for popular education in Britain, fought by people like William Lovett, powerfully demonstrate that the right to education can be achieved.

After the 1860s, a powerful political coalition developed behind the demand for public education. It brought together an increasingly powerful trade union movement with the Nonconformist Church and enlightened industrialists. It was Will Thorn, the leader of the gas workers' union, who, having left school at the age of seven, led the trade union demand for free education.

Gripped by an unshakable laissez-faire ideology, successive governments resisted the idea that the state had a responsibility to provide education to its citizens. Publicly financed schooling was deemed to be unaffordable; and an education that provided working class children with more than a modicum of literacy, and acceptance of their place in society, was seen as potentially subversive.

Social protest then gradually eroded political inertia. In 1870 the foundations for a national primary school system were laid. Twenty years later free elementary education was achieved, albeit in a manner that was designed to restrict the working classes to primary schooling. Britain entered the 20th century with the least-educated population of any industrialised country.

So, what is the relevance of all this for the global education challenges that are facing us? I want to suggest that there are three lessons that emerge.

Governments must recognise that education is the most important weapon in the fight against poverty. Industrialised countries have signed on to targets that aim by 2015 to halve the incidence of extreme poverty and cut by three-quarters the child death rate. These targets will not be met in the absence of progress towards universal primary education.

Looking to the future, the social and economic effects of educational inequalities are being strengthened by globalisation. Cut off from opportunities in an increasingly knowledge-based global trading system, there is a danger that whole swaths of the developing world will transformed into enclaves of despair in an increasingly unequal world.

The second lesson concerns finance. In 19th-century Britain, governments insisted that education was unaffordable. Much the same claim is heard today from governments in the world's poorest countries, and it is as specious now as it was then.

To achieve universal education within a decade would cost about $7bn- $8bn annually. This represents a small investment for a high return in terms of reduced poverty and saved lives.

Western governments could make a start by putting their money where their mouths are; they spend less than 3 per cent of their fast-shrinking aid budgets on this area. Raising the figure to 8 per cent would generate about $4bn.

Debt relief also has a vital role to play. Oxfam estimates the cost of financing universal primary education, for Africa as a whole, as less than one-third of the costs of debt servicing. The region's creditors are allowing debt to destroy education opportunities for millions, consigning children to a future of poverty.

The third lesson is the most powerful and the most simple. We need to develop globally the coalitions that transformed the social landscape of 19th-century Britain. As governments prepare to review commitments made 10 years ago political campaigns are needed to ensure that they renew their pledge, and that this time they keep to it.