Don McKinnon: Education brings knowledge, health and economic growth

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When I visited Sierra Leone a couple of years ago, I met some children whose lives were affected by civil war. Most had lost one or more limbs and many were orphans. The vast majority had never seen a classroom. I asked them questions about themselves and what they had been through - but they were not interested in discussing the past. All they would talk about was the future: "I want to go to go to school, then to university"; "I want to study law"; "I want to have a family"; "I want to be a doctor". It was clear the one thing they needed most was a good education.

Every day, throughout the Commonwealth, 75 million children have no school to go to. Even where there is provision for basic education, enrolments after the age of 12 or 13 decline sharply. Many are orphaned, their parents dead from Aids, and many are homeless or working for bare necessities. This is morally unacceptable and socially and economically damaging.

Education brings knowledge and understanding, better mental and physical health, greater commitment to others, economic growth and greater development for everyone. And of course, education also means stronger, more efficient democracies. When children do not have access to education, it is not only the individual who is deprived of a decent future. Their community is robbed of opportunities and growth.

As Nelson Mandela said: "Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world." But while we all recognise that an educated population is at the root of any society's growth, in many countries scarce resources mean that "education for all" remains an elusive goal.

Organisations such as the Commonwealth can make a difference the myriad groups of the Commonwealth. We in the Commonwealth Secretariat support ministries providing training for teachers, update and improve school administration and leadership, promote relevant curricula for new styles of teaching and learning and address the crucial literacy, communication and Information Communication Technology skills now so much in demand.

The 15th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers (15CCEM) will address these concerns. Ministers will discuss issues relating to universal primary education, quality schooling and the elimination of gender disparities. They will look at education in difficult circumstances, the impact of HIV/Aids and the huge potential of distance learning.

Our aim is to work with Ministries of Education to enhance the quality of the learning and teaching experience with whatever resources are available.

The conference in Edinburgh will bring together Commonwealth partners in education, providing a platform to share good practice and find practical solutions to the problems we face. The theme of the conference, "Closing the Gap: Access, Inclusion, Achievement", challenges us to find new, innovative ways of working together.

This is a very exciting time for Commonwealth education. Momentum is building, giving shape to original initiatives and new opportunities for stronger collaboration between Commonwealth partners. This is only possible because the Commonwealth is an effective, co-operative network, where partnerships develop naturally, out of common affinities, similar outlooks and shared purpose.

There are other reasons why 15CCEM excites me. In addition to the ministerial meetings, the conference has a Parallel Symposium, organised by the British Council, letting academics, teachers, non-governmental organisations and the private sector contribute knowledge and insights and interact with ministers. The Youth Summit, where young people share their ideas about education, also brings a fresh dimension.

I am confident that we will have a successful conference, which will deliver sound, tangible outcomes for all Commonwealth citizens.

The Rt Hon Don McKinnon is Commonwealth Secretary-General