Let’s make sure our education pledges reach every corner of the world

Everyone deserves an equal opportunity of getting an education: it’s a basic human right. But giving everyone an equal chance means more than making an equal effort. To make sure some children have an equal chance – especially the poor, girls, ethnic minorities, the disabled, those who live on the margins – you have to make a special effort.

That’s what equity means, as opposed to equality: equity is about fairness, it’s what you have to do to get to equality.

When international education experts drew up the six Education for All goals in 2000, they wrote the language of equity into the goals. So why is equity in education far from being realised, with only two years to go until the deadline for the goals in 2015?

It’s crucial that we resolve this question, because the international education community is now proposing new goals, for the post-2015 period. And once again equity is there in black and white. It’s on the agenda this week in New York, where representatives from around the world have gathered for a meeting of the UN General Assembly’s Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals. The meeting focuses today on “Promoting equality, including social equity, gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

What can we do to make sure that this time, good intentions translate into real results for the world’s marginalized children?

We had that question foremost in our minds as we produced the 2013/4 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all, which was launched last week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Visualising the extent of such disadvantages is key to recognizing the scale of the problem of children who are trying to get to school and learn while there, as new data on our World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE) show.

In Malawi, for example, three quarters of the richest boys in urban areas complete primary school and learn the basics in reading. But in rural areas, only a quarter of the poorest girls can say the same. Breaking the figures down in this way makes it clear where funds should be directed.


Government data seldom reveal such inequalities, because they tend to look at national averages; we use household surveys to compile our WIDE figures. And therein lies part of the answer to the equity puzzle. To make sure you give every child an equal chance of an education, you not only have to dedicate special efforts and resources to reaching the marginalized. You also have to measure how they are doing, using data that are broken down – or disaggregated – group by group, region by region.

Back in 2000, disaggregated data were harder to come by. Perhaps that helps explain why the mentions of equity in the EFA goals don’t have numbers attached. Now we do have such data, even if they are not perfect.

Another piece of the puzzle, along with implementing policies to reach the marginalized and measuring whether they are working, is to write targets into our new goals. Not just for raising average education levels, but for respecting the right of every person to an education – including, for example, those girls from poor families in rural Malawi, not learning due to a triple barrier of poverty, gender and where they live.

Equity has to be at the heart of every goal, target and indicator on educational access and learning. If we fail to do this, we will also fail another generation, just as today’s illiterate young people are the victims of our past failures.

We also tried in our report to gauge the scale of the equity problem, by looking at how long it would take for the marginalized to achieve global education goals if we carry on with business with usual – if we fail to put numbers on those extra efforts we need to make, and measure whether our efforts are working.

The results are shocking. In Nigeria, for example, where all rich boys are already completing primary school, on current trends it will be another three generations before poor girls do. Across sub-Saharan Africa, it will take until 2086 for all of the poorest girls to be completing primary school.

And that’s just primary school. Unless we step up our efforts to reach the daughters of the poorest families in Africa, it will take until 2111 for them to be completing lower secondary school – the level they need to reach to have a hope of getting decent jobs.

Education is not only a right, it’s part of the basic social contract between a government and its citizens. Yet that contract is being broken for millions of people across the world. Most of those people already live on the margins of society, and stand to benefit the most from education’s transforming power. When we set down our education pledges for the era after 2015, let’s make sure we don’t fail them again.

By Pauline Rose, director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report

Originally posted on the World Education Blog page on 05 February 2014.