If developing countries are to achieve economic growth and continue to reduce poverty into the next century, they must give a higher priority to basic education, particularly for girls, says the World Bank in its first overall review of the subject since 1980.
Although 76 per cent of the world's children now go to school for a period of time, compared with only 48 per cent in 1960, big problems remain, particularly in Africa where the numbers attending primary school are declining, according to the report, Priorities and Strategies for Education.
The 115-page document sounds this warning: "Unless policies change, continuing high population growth rates in Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, mean that the number of six-to 11-year-old children not in school will increase from 129 million in 1990 to 162 million by 2015.
"Moreover, only two-thirds of the number of children who start primary school complete it. As a result, adult illiteracy, which already characterises more than 900 million people in the world, will likely remain a major problem. "
The report calls the lag between reform of countries' economic systems and that of their education systems "very disturbing".
"This dynamic is particularly pronounced in the former socialist economies of Eastern and Central Europe, where many of the impressive educational legacies of the communist period are now threatened by austerity, uncertainty and too slow a response by the education system to political and economic changes, " it adds.
The East Asian countries, particularly Korea, which have invested heavily in basic education for all children, are held up as a beacon of light. They illustrate what can be achieved when the education system is reformed along with the economy, says the World Bank.
The report, aimed at policy-makers in developing countries, pledges continued World Bank support for education reform. The bank lends more than Pounds 1.25 billion a-year for education and is the largest single source of external finance for education in the developing world.
The bank is hoping new loans to India and Mexico will enable those countries to realise the kind of economic miracles that have taken place in East Asia. Last year, India announced a programme of primary education reform in rural areas.
In the first phase, it is hoped to reach 10 million children in 50,000 schools in 42 districts. The aim is to improve school quality, expand opportunities and improve educational management.
Mexico has an ambitious primary education project in 10 of its poorest southern states. With the help of one of the biggest World Bank loans for education so far (Pounds 257.5 million), the scheme hopes to provide materials and persuade teachers to work in remote areas.
Priorities and Strategies for Education, A World Bank Sector Review, available in mid-June from The World Bank, 1818 H Street, NW, Washington DC 20433, USA