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Richest nations told to dig deep

UK calls on G8 and EU to stump up billions needed to give poorest children a basic education. Yojana Sharma reports

The Government has vowed to use its upcoming presidencies of the G8 group of eight industrialised countries and the European Union to call on rich nations to increase and speed up aid for basic education in poor countries.

The Department for International Development has said it is "very committed" to the United Nations' target of universal primary education by 2015.

"We will be using the UK's G8 and EU presidencies in general to ratchet up the international discussion on commitments to education and inject a sense of urgency," a DfID spokesman said. "Our challenge to everyone in the international community is to increase aid to basic education."

The call comes as Unesco's latest monitoring report on Education For All found that many poor countries are unlikely to achieve the 2015 target, leaving tens of millions of children without even basic skills and holding back the economic progress of some of the poorest countries.

Pressure groups are planning major lobbying campaigns for 2005 - a key year for the millennium goals, with a UN review scheduled for March and the UN general assembly discussing the issue in September.

"We are very aware that the presidency of the G8 and the EU will prove to be an important opportunity for the UK to take specific action to meet the targets," said Jonathan Hepburn, of Oxfam International.

The Unesco report noted some successes: the world's children can expect on average to stay on at school a year longer today than in the 1990s and the expansion of schooling in poor countries has led to a slow reduction in the number of primary-age children out of school - down from 106.9 million in 1998 to 103.5 million in 2001 on the basis of governments' figures.

But at this slow pace of change the goals of universal primary education by 2015 and equality of education for girls by 2005, are impossible. The target dates were set at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in 2000.

Girls' participation in primary school is still substantially lower than boys' in 71 out of 175 countries, particularly in Africa, the Arab states, south and west Asia. Completion of primary schooling is still a major cause for concern. Delayed enrolment is widespread, and the numbers completing five primary years are still low, below three-quarters in one third of countries with data. In Chad and Madagascar, for example, only a third starting primary school finish it.

Total aid for basic education could double to pound;1.8 to 2 billion per year by 2006. Under proposals from UK Chancellor Gordon Brown this cash will be raised by an international financing facility run by the World Bank. Even so, this is well short of the pound;4bn a year in aid the UN estimates poor countries need to put all primary-age children in school.

DfID believes the cash should be targeted at countries where education inequalities are widest but a DfID source said there was no question of abandoning international targets. "If by 2015 a few million children are still out of school that will be a great pity but the international community will have to work together to reach this goal as soon as possible after the target date," a spokesman said.

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