CONTENTIOUS though the academic debate has been, the difference education makes to a society is increasingly demonstrated by research. The World Bank annual report 1998 gives a startling example. In 1960, the gross national product of Ghana and South Korea were similar; by 1990, South Korea's GNP was six times that of Ghana and half the difference was attributable to education.
Summarising a generation of research into human capital, the World Bank concludes: "Education is one of the best investments, outstripping the returns from many investments in physical capital. Indeed, ... the total stock of human capital worldwide has higher value by far, in terms of its contribution to production, than the stock of physical capital." The benefits of education, of course, go far beyond economics. Successful education systems also bring social cohesion and a better quality of democracy and public debate. Yet education provision around the world is shockingly uneven. The World Bank describes four classes of education system. The mature systems of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, which it describes as having "residual problems of inefficiency and inequity". There are reform systems, such as those in Russia and Eastern Europe which face serious quality and growth demands in challenging economic and social circumstances. There are emergent systems such as those in Latin America and North Africa where participation is high but problems of inequality and quality are acute.
Finally, there are least developed systems, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa where universal basic provision remains the exception rather than the rule.
In short, the world is a long way from achieving the goals set at the World Conference on Education for all in Thailand 10 years ago which included ensuring primary education for every child.
For mature education systems the residual challenges are considerabl; for the world's least developed systems, they are immense. There has been progress but not enough. In 1960, fewer than 50 per cent of children of primary-age were in school. In 1990, more than 75 per cent were. But even now, more than 130 million primary-age children are not in school. Two-thirds of these are girls and, in sub-Saharan Africa, enrolment rates are actually falling.
It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge and for each country to focus solely on its own parochial problems but this would be a mistake. If we are to succeed in meeting the challenges ahead, globally as well as nationally, then education reform in one country is no more likely to be successful in the next decade than socialism in one country was in the 1930s. We are in this together - globally. This is not just rhetoric. Problems of the environment, population growth or indeed genetic engineering cannot be solved by individual countries acting alone.
Isn't it time to concentrate on applying locally, globally and with real urgency what we do know about education reform rather than postponing decisions because we wish we knew more? We have in the education community a tendency to say that education is so "context-specific" or "culture-specific" that the lessons of education reform are not easily transferred from one place to another. Of course, there is an obvious truth here but each time we assert it we blind ourselves to the many vitally important, surely transferable lessons there are from 20 years of reform.
There is a mountain to climb before we have one learning world. As Clare Short said recently: "The start of the new millennium is the moment to turn fine words into fine deeds ... To bring the benefits of educational opportunity to millions of children ... so that all countries can accelerate their development, reduce poverty and give everyone the chance to realise their potential."