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`No one left behind' must mean adults, too

Millions of people worldwide are marginalised by their inability to read or write. Governments must act to turn these lives around

Millions of people worldwide are marginalised by their inability to read or write. Governments must act to turn these lives around

Adult education can be life-changing. Debates in this country often diminish the rigour and seriousness of learners' efforts by using phrases such as "flower arranging on the taxpayer" or "willow weaving for beginners". But in reality, in some parts of the world, learning a new skill can be the difference between a life of dignity and one, at best, of embattled survival.

That is why the global targets for adult education matter to so many people, and why agreements made last month in South Korea and later this year in New York will have a major effect on lives across the planet.

Consider, for example, the experience of Shanti Devi, who fled a violent childhood in Assam, India, for what turned out to be a violent and abusive marriage in Delhi, before escaping with her three daughters. By chance she found the extraordinary voluntary organisation the Azad Foundation, and through its Women on Wheels scheme was trained as a commercial driver. She went on to find employment with a for-profit social enterprise - organised by women, for women - which offers safe transport for women. The training gave her economic independence, pride and agency.

Look, too, at the work Ramon Mapa leads in the Philippines, helping victims of climate change to rebuild their lives when villages disappear below water and communities are forced to relocate. And consider the experience of tutors working for Nirantar, a literacy programme for Dalit ("untouchable") women in Uttar Pradesh, India. Like their students, they have suffered intimidation and violence as they work to secure the rights - which are actually enshrined in law - for women to access literacy and wider learning.

These stories, of people overcoming intimidation and violence to use education to transform their lives, can be found in many parts of the world. In India, successful work is built on a combination of enlightened national legislation and creative partnerships with voluntary organisations, yet still rights have to be asserted and struggled for, village by village, in many areas.

But in many countries and regions there is no comparable legislative commitment - or willingness - to work with local partners in the voluntary sector to secure change. Each year, Unesco publishes an independent report on the overall success in meeting the Education For All (EFA) goals agreed internationally in 2000. These goals pledged to halve the level of adult illiteracy by 2015 and to secure the right to education for work and wider life for young people and adults by the same date.

Yet there are still at least 781 million people without literacy, and most authorities suggest that the real figure is half as big again. But we lack the means to measure the extent to which we have met the aim of offering skills for work and active citizenship to young people and adults. Back in 1990, when the first global adult literacy goal was set, 64 per cent of people without literacy were women. In 2015, despite promises to secure gender equality, the figure is still 64 per cent.

Of course, the overwhelming challenges faced by poor adults who lack literacy in developing countries are paralleled in industrial countries, where the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development calculates that 161 million people lack the literacy skills to contribute effectively to economic or civic life. In the Appalachians, in parts of many British cities or in the banlieues of Paris, the interaction between poverty, poor skills, weak transport systems and widespread structural unemployment makes a mockery of our aspirations to give everyone equal opportunities.

Overwhelming challenges

It could be argued that the gap between governmental promises and actions on the ground makes the setting of global goals a waste of time. Yet governments and aid agencies alike speak of the galvanising effects of the 2000 Millennium Development Goals, which have had a major impact on access to primary schools, clean water and sanitation. Unesco's EFA Global Monitoring Report considers the same question, concluding that as a result of the EFA agreements, 31 million more children attended school.

The report says that of the six targets adopted in 2000, adult literacy was the one that governments were least successful in meeting, and offers four main reasons for this. First, a lack of government will to find the money or to make it a priority. Second, campaigns seldom have a long-term impact (though the evidence of Nepal and China in recent years, or Cuba and Nicaragua a generation ago, suggests there is nothing inevitable about this). Third, few programmes are taught in mother tongues; fourth, people not only need access to literacy skills but to a literate culture. I would add a fifth: the failure of the international community, which made great strides in improving gender equality for girls, to extend the same priority to women. Yet literate women marry later, have fewer children, lose fewer babies in infancy and are more likely to survive childbirth. Their diets are better, they are less likely to contract HIV and they have a dramatic impact on their children's education.

The need to include adults in future global goals has been debated passionately for four years, culminating in last month's World Education Forum in Incheon, South Korea. This set a new agenda for education for 2015-30, within the framework of global sustainable development goals to be confirmed in New York in September. The forum's recommendations apply to industrial and developing countries alike, though you would need a microscope to find mention of them in the British press.

The overall goal agreed through inter-governmental negotiation, endorsed in South Korea, is to "ensure equitable and inclusive quality education and promote lifelong learning for all". The aim, according to the UN secretary general, who addressed the forum, is "no one left behind", and to secure literacy for young people and adults alike - not a bad benchmark against which to measure the UK's own progress in meeting the needs of the 15 million adults here who have weak literacy and numeracy skills.

However, this is not the end of the matter. Before the overall global development goals are agreed, a Financing for Development conference will take place in Addis Ababa in July. Although governments signed up to an educational programme in South Korea that stretched from early years to later life, the finance statement proposed restricting funding to early years, primary and secondary schooling - excluding adult learning altogether. If these proposals are accepted, adults will be failed again, and the life chances of people like Shanti, the Dalit women or the Filipino communities displaced by climate change will once again be dependent on chance. As a matter of conscience, they deserve better than this, as do the marginalised adults in our own country.

Alan Tuckett is professor of education at the University of Wolverhampton and president of the International Council for Adult Education

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