Eastern promise: Will ministers honour their pledge to Indian schoolchildren?

Two Bristol schoolgirls are just back from a trip to the subcontinent and want Gordon Brown to give more aid.

At the brand-new £24m Bristol Brunel Academy there is a wishing wall. White stone tablets adorn grey bricks, each with a pupil's desire carved in black lettering. One stands out: "I wish more children could enjoy having a school like this."

Pupils Laura Broomfield and Alice Miller learnt the meaning of this last month when they visited one of the poorest regions of India with the charity World Vision and local MP Kerry McCarthy. The trip was organised on behalf of the Global Campaign for Education, a coalition of charities, NGOs and teachers' organisations, as a forerunner to global action week, which begins on Monday.

The aim is to make governments follow through on the promises they made in 2000, when the UN laid down its eight millennium goals. One of these pledged to achieve universal primary education by 2015. But with only seven years to go, some 72 million children are still missing out on a basic five years' education.

The Global Campaign particularly wants to see that women, children and disadvantaged sections of society are not let down. Without success in India, the world will fail to meet the goals, which is why these two Bristol girls found themselves standing in a dank cell of a classroom in Goyla, a pretty but poor village in the Mewat region, less than two hours' drive from Delhi.

And didn't they look out of place? It was a far cry from the bright corridor-less school they're used to. But architecture wasn't why they stood out; nor was it their white faces. It was the fact they were 15-year-old girls inside a classroom: a rarity in this part of India.

Few girls in Mewat get a proper education, owing to the conservatism of the local Meo Muslim community, a particularly hard-line group. It's also down to the fact that the nearest middle school is often in the next village, several kilometres along a bad road. Besides, there are siblings to be taken care of, and work to be done in the field. And then there is the insularity of life in this rural backwater. Parents are reluctant to send their girls outside a village they've never left themselves.

"These are very closed communities," says World Vision's Ian Dawes, who looks after the charity's Mewat area development programme. "It's about the way they protect their faith. They protect the family unit and women and are suspicious of outside influences. These people have very little formal education and very little experience of the developed world." This is also your average patriarchal society in the developing world. In Goyla, Laura and Alice met four young women who are casualties of this psyche. Tugging saris over their solemn faces, these girls are Laura and Alice's counterparts.

One of them, Urmila, 13, left school in fourth class, aged 10, a year before completing primary school. When I ask her, through an interpreter, whether she regrets leaving school, she says: "Nah," with a typically Indian wave of the palm. "I wasn't interested in study." Urmila wanted to go to a sewing centre to learn stitching, knitting and embroidering – not for the money: just because she wanted to.

Her bright face seemed relaxed and satisfied; but what we were witnessing was not informed contentment; it was ignorant bliss. Urmila's mother did not receive an education and, with the scarcity of female teachers, she had no role model to tell her of the value of education. Urmila knew no different. Her parents just want her to be married off.

"When we met the girls who had dropped out of education, I think all but one of them said that they were happy to have dropped out," says McCarthy, the MP for Bristol East and parliamentary private secretary to the minister for international development, Douglas Alexander. "But when you've got men from the village sitting there, listening, you're not quite sure whether that is really the case; and even if it is, is that because of the attitudes that have been drummed into them – that there's no point in having an education?"

But it's not just a crippling dropout rate that is dogging India's schools. Quality is also a major problem. After four years in school, two out of five children cannot even read a short paragraph. Only half of children in India achieve basic levels of learning. The other half is made up of those who either never enrol, or simply participate without learning.

Attendance is prized above all – not only for pupils, but for teachers, who have high job security and good pay, but little motivation. There is a danger that the ideal of getting the children into school could overshadow the glaring issue of standards, something that was not lost on Laura and Alice. "They've certainly gained a real awareness of the sensitivity and the complexity of it," says Brigid Allen, the academy's vice-principal, who accompanied the girls on the trip. "It's not as easy as 'educate everybody and get them off to secondary and then university'. It's not that simple."

Then again, India, with its sheer scale and network of local districts, isn't simple. Education policy is difficult to direct, and initiatives can change on the whim of an incoming state governor. The Indian government has traditionally ploughed money into elite higher education – which only serves 10 per cent of the population, but helps maintain its status as a competitor internationally. This has left primary education lagging behind, and India is unlikely to meet the millennium target by 2015. By this time, it could have the world's third largest economy, but, today, 800 million of its people still live on less than £1 a day.

Alice and Laura took these issues to Britain's Department for International Development and Unesco in Delhi. They told officials that they had been struck by the repressive attitudes of people's families, and asked what more Britain should be doing to help – and what they themselves could do.

The British government already helps a great deal. The UK is the world's second biggest aid donor, and India is its largest single recipient. And through the work of organisations such as World Vision, good things are happening. Free meals, flexible class times, and crèches are all, thanks to British money, helping to turn around the problems of Indian education. Women's self-help groups, such as the ones Gordon Brown visited on a recent trip to Delhi, are helping to reverse the patriarchal systems that deny so many Indian girls a fair start in life.

Nor was the girls' trip all doom and gloom – even if the food and the loos were both "mingin". The touring party visited a number of different villages in Mewat and each time they were greeted with floral garlands, bunches of flowers and local songs. In Bhagipur, the girls said their own thank you by handing out sweets and donating pens, skipping ropes and balls to the local school.

Since their return to Bristol, Laura and Alice have been putting on assemblies, showing photographs and explaining how many girls aren't receiving a proper education. "It's important to make people aware of what is going on in other parts of the world," says Laura. The girls will also be working with the school council, and will give talks at their partner school, John Cabot Academy. The two academies are hoping to set up links with other schools in the north-east of India.

But most British schools have links overseas and their true value is debatable. Raising awareness can make a difference, though. Last month, a group of children marched on Downing Street. They presented the Prime Minister with a huge "missing out" card. In response, he pledged an extra £150m-worth of support to India's primary education programme.

The girls aren't satisfied, however. They plan to write to Gordon Brown and local MP Roger Berry to say that, though substantial aid is being given to India, more needs to be done to see that the money gets to the villages they visited. "It may be that they need to talk to the Indian government – maybe we can put more pressure on them," says Laura.

Both girls admit to having a strong desire to return to Mewat. Laura says she would like to visit the projects again, "to see if it's helped and figure out a way to help them more."

Alice's mind is still racing. "I've got a completely different outlook on something that you don't even know exists until you see it," she says. "You think, how much worse can it be in villages that haven't had help?"

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