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Billion pledge to inspire G8

British government hopes other rich states will respond to its surprise promise on education. Yojana Sharma reports

The UK government is hoping its dramatic announcement of pound;1.4 billion of new aid over the next three years for girls' education in poor countries will galvanise support for the worldwide drive to get every child into school.

Campaign groups were caught off guard by the size of the commitment but warmly welcomed it. Save the Children said the UK was the first of the G8 group of wealthy nations to pay its "share" towards the goal of achieving education for all by 2015.

However, the Global Campaign for Education warned that a concerted aid effort from all the wealthy countries was needed to reach the goal.

An estimated 104 million children - 58m of them girls - are currently out of school in poor countries. Unesco has calculated it will require pound;3 billion a year for the next 10 years to close the gap.

An interim goal set by the international community in Dakar, Senegal in 2000, to get as many girls as boys into school by 2005 is likely to be missed.

But the UK government, which has pledged to put Africa at the top of the agenda during its presidency of the G8 this year, hopes its announcement will "inspire" other countries to contribute.

"We are scaling up on education to set an example to the international community on girls' education and education in general," so that the goals set in 2000 could be reached "albeit not this year", junior development minister Gareth Thomas told The TES.

With donor countries reluctant to pledge funds, more than 75 countries have already missed the 2005 goal, one third of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

Anne Jellema of the Global Campaign for Education welcomed the pound;1.4bn pledge but said many countries needing help are ones which the Department for International Development does not currently support. She said achieving education for all would require "bold and co-ordinated action to remove school fees, improve infrastructure, train teachers. This needs a major investment by donor countries."

School fees are the single most important barrier to girls' education. "As long as there is a queue for education, boys will be at the front," she said.

Mr Thomas pledged to look at how the UK could channel more of its aid through a global fast-track initiative set up by the World Bank to help countries most in need of and ready to receive help.

Katy Webley, Save the Children Fund's education adviser, said half the UK's pound;1.4bn should go through the global initiative rather than the current UK contribution of just pound;12m.

"For the UK to really lead the way it should channel some pound;200m a year through the fast track. If other donor countries follow in the same vein it will enable 38 needy countries to scale up their efforts." The World Bank says about pound;1.07bn a year is needed for the fast-track initiative to really make an impact.

Bob Doe, editor of The TES, which has campaigned for Education for All for five years, said: "It is tremendous that the Government is now taking the lead on this issue. I hope the commitment will be long-term and that they will push hard for other international leaders to match Britain's efforts."

The UK is in a unique position to influence the global drive for education as it holds the presidency of the G8 and from July the presidency of the EU. It is also co-chairman of the global fast track initiative.

In March The TES will be launching its own global citizenship campaign to encourage UK schools to establish partnerships with schools in developing countries as a means to engaging pupils with the United Nations' drive to halve poverty, spread education, combat Aids and achieve environmental sustainability worldwide.

A UN summit will review progress towards these "millennium development goals" in September.

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