Why can't all children go to primary school?

Gordon Brown invited young people to Brussels last week in an attempt to drum up support (and cash) for his dream of universal primary education. But not everything went to plan.
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Hopes were high at a top-level conference in Brussels last week of a push towards the millennium goal of getting all the world's children into primary school. The Chancellor Gordon Brown, who convened the summit, outlined a vision of "being the first generation in history to send every child to school". He pledged to work with countries, charities and corporations to make it happen.

A team of young delegates, who had flown in from around the world to press donors to act urgently on the issue, dreamed of seeing a big-name donor step forward to do for education what Bill and Melinda Gates have done for global health.

But the result was a big disappointment. No one signed a giant cheque. And media attention was diverted by the scandal surrounding Brown's fellow convener Paul Wolfowitz, the president of the World Bank. Meanwhile, most of the aid money pledged by governments has yet to be seen, and it looks unlikely that the goal will meet its target date of 2015.

Campaigners are frustrated. Not only are 77 million children not in school, but a lack of education holds up other development - illiterate populations and shortages of trained professionals hamper health projects and economic growth. In a world facing climate change and global terrorism, continuing gulfs between the rich and poor threaten everyone.

One of the team of young delegates in Brussels was Simon Moss, 23, the founder of an Australian youth-run development organisation. I talked to his six-strong team in London before they flew to Brussels. "Of course education's a good thing in itself, but there's also the long-term geopolitical view," Moss said.

"There's actually a youth bulge starting to go through the population right now, and we've only got five years or so to tackle it.

"If we miss that window, there will be millions more people not going to school. And people without an education can't make good, informed choices."

Simon and the five other young leaders were invited by Brown to present the youth voice at the Brussels conference after the Chancellor heard them speak passionately on education at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.

The group were part of a 60-strong delegation of active young citizens, identified by the British Council, who were brought together for Davos after Klaus Schwab, the chairman of the World Economic Forum, asked for young people's voices to be represented.

"There was such passion in the way they talked," says Martin Davidson, the director general of the British Council. "And they made such a coherent case. There was standing room only at the meeting."

In the months since then, the group has formed a strong online network, and many are now lobbying for global education aid within their own countries.

They said the issue of universal primary education badly needed more money from both governments and the private sector to make an impact. It also needed to find ways to capture the public's imagination.

"People are literally dying from ignorance, but the problem is that you can't see that in pictures, like you can with diseases," said Yoo-Sun Andrea Choi, 21, a civil servant from Korea.

The team speculated about the possibility of persuading a big name - Google was mentioned wistfully - to make setting up schools as sexy an issue as eradicating malaria, and pointed out that everyone can be made to relate to the importance of education because of their own experience of school. "It just needs to become an interesting and hot issue," said Chanda Ghoorah, 24, a youth officer from Mauritius. "After all, 10 years ago, whoever talked about health?"

Moss said: "People also need to know that it is possible, that it is not an impossible project that we're facing. It can be done.

"But we need a real vibe about how urgent it is. We need to have education up there on the agenda. A big push. Something like when Carnegie funded all those thousands of libraries.

"And we've also got to have good and clear communication about what is happening, so that someone can come in and give a big donation, and then say, 'Look, I've invested in the finance gap in Tanzania for the next five years.'"

Jad Kheir, 21, an Arab medical student from Israel, added: "Education's really important because it can be a tool for people to shed stereotypes and stigmas. If you have multicultural education, it can help people know about each other and make them more tolerant."

At the Brussels conference, Yossra Mohamed Taha, 22, an Egyptian postgraduate student, told delegates that there needed to be a drive for more and better-quality education, and an attempt to get more private donors on board. There also needed to be a clear link between investment and outcomes, so donors could see what they were getting for their money.

"The world has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to finally get serious about education," Taha said. "The extremely large number of children out of school, and the many more in bad schools, should make us all feel sad and ashamed."

The team met the financier and philanthropist George Soros, but failed to persuade him to be the big name behind the cause. "He said that working globally was only about talk and strategy," Taha said. "He told us he believes in working locally. He offered to put $5m [£2.5m] into Liberia if the international community would provide the rest, because he knows the head of the country and has worked with her a lot."

After the conference, Armin Stähli, 21, a Swiss student, said the main forum had been "disappointing", as responses from many countries, including his native Switzerland, had been poor.

The Campaign for Global Education, the coalition of pressure groups and development agencies, agreed. "The high-powered ministers, the ones who could sign the cheques, just weren't there," said Nicky Wimble of Oxfam. CGE has named the US, Italy, Germany and Japan as being at the bottom of the league of national achievement in this area, while the UK is fourth.

However, Angela Bekkers of the World Bank said that the meeting had had "several promising and positive outcomes". Additional funding had been announced by the European Union, the World Bank, Germany and Japan, while Unesco and the World Economic Forum announced the formation of new Partnerships for Education, bringing together charities, governments and the private sector.

"Donors often take six months to come through, and there were very good words from Germany and Portugal and France," said Desmond Bermingham, head of the Fast Track Initiative, the global scheme to co-ordinate education investment (see box). The private sector was willing to invest strategically, with the Partnerships for Education, and that was heartening, Bermingham said.

In the past, companies had simply pursued their own projects. There are signs that the US is starting to swing behind the idea of investing in universal primary education as a way to rebuild its damaged international reputation, Berm-ingham said. Democratic presidential candidates support the idea, and some of the charitable foundations are showing interest.

"We could be near a tipping point - and when the Americans decide to go for something they go for it. I think there is a growing feeling that the picture is becoming clear, the needs are becoming clear, and we all just have to get on and do it. We could see a really significant change in the next six to 12 months.

"If that happens, there is still a chance, I believe, that we could achieve this millennium goal in something like 85 per cent of countries." Bermingham said.

The march towards primary education for every child

* 2000 World leaders agree on eight Millennium Goals to reduce poverty. The second says that children everywhere will be able to complete primary education by 2015.

* 2001 - 2003 Studies show that funding good quality universal primary education could cost between $7bn (£3.5bn) and $17bn (£8.5bn) a year, with recurrent costs, such as teacher salaries, costing the bulk of that.

* 2002 Donor countries work with developing countries to set up the Fast Track Initiative (FTI) to fund primary education in countries that have a commitment to education. This provides a mechanism to channel donors' money into "quality stamped" education, and guarantees funding for 10 years to the countries concerned, provided that progress continues towards mutually agreed goals. Predictable funding is essential for countries needing to invest in teachers and teacher training.

* 2004 The Catalytic Fund, to support countries with too few donors, is set up. This offers short-term, transitional support. Total aid for basic education rises to $3.4bn.

* 2006 The UK pledges $15bn in aid over 10 years.

* 2007 New Partnerships for Education created by the World Economic Forum and UNESCO to bring together charities, governments and private sector. Hilary Clinton introduces an Education for All Act in the US Senate, proposing a $10bn investment over five years. Research shows that the number of children out of school has gone down by 20 million since 2000, and 31 countries have education plans approved by the FTI. But 77 million children remain out of school (44 million of them girls) and the Global Campaign for Education points out that to meet the Millennium target, all children need to start school by 2009.