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Aids widens poverty gap

Neil Munro reports from the Commonwealth Conference

"Humbling" was how Peter Peacock, the Scottish Education Minister, described his experience of the 15th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers, which passed off barely noticed in Edinburgh last week.

Mr Peacock, who chaired most of the ministerial proceedings, remarked at one point that he had just been attending a meeting at the Scottish Executive on the expansion of broadband technology - while the preoccupation of many of his 51 colleagues was how to stop the teaching force in many parts of the Commonwealth being decimated by Aids.

It is estimated that one in 10 teachers in Africa will die of Aids-related illnesses over the next decade, most of them from Commonwealth countries.

This stark prospect is unlikely to be what Mr Peacock had in mind when he said that other countries had shown an interest in Scotland's policies on recruitment, retention and development of teachers.

While the conference grappled with themes all too familiar to Scottish teachers - quality not quantity of education, the importance of good teachers, involving parents and learners, fulfilling the potential of those with learning impediments - it was the differences that made most impact.

These were often of the most fundamental kind. While Mr Peacock and Jack McConnell, the First Minister, were understandably pleased that they had succeeded in placing their policies at the heart of the conference agenda (its theme was "Closing the gap: access, inclusion and achievement"), these notions had rather different meanings in many Commonwealth countries.

For them, "closing the gap" means providing primary education for the estimated 75 million children who do not have a school. Closing the gender gap is not about boys' underachievement but ensuring girls have the chance to study. And recruitment and retention mean stopping rich countries poaching teachers from the poorer nations.

Kader Asmal, South Africa's Education Minister, said 4,702 of his country's teachers had been lured to jobs in England and Wales over the past two years. "This is not poaching," he commented. "It's bloodletting."

These and other issues all featured in the final conference communique and action plan. But, apart from setting up a working group aimed at reaching agreement on "cross-country teacher recruitment" by September 2004, there was little evidence of how ministers' lofty ambitions were to be realised.

This was seized on after the conference by Oxfam which accused politicians of failing to take "decisive action". According to Oxfam, the Commonwealth is facing an education crisis and its education ministers are content just to rehearse previous arguments and utter warm words.

But Professor Asmal told a concluding press conference it was easy to be "cynical and blase" about such occasions. He countered that there had been "robust debate", small states had been given a big voice and there had been a celebration of diversity in education.

The agreement on action to stem the flow of teachers from the south to the north was one that would not involve "the lowest common denominator".

The main feature which was an innovation at Edinburgh and which the ministers agreed would become a fixture of the three-yearly gathering was the youth summit which brought together two delegates from each Commonwealth country to debate the same issues as the ministers.

The blunt message from young people could be summed up as: you've got to do more, better.

International 21-22

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