'Help us teach the world to read'
International aid agencies are calling on Tony Blair to direct his "education, education, education" mantra to the world stage, to help the one in four primary-age children who never see the inside of a school, or drop out far too soon.
Oxfam International and other agencies have launched a campaign to raise awareness of the global education crisis in advance of April's World Forum on Education for All in Dakar, Senegal. The organisation is urging governments and international institutions to provide resources for primary education, including funds released by debt relief.
At present, 125million primary-age children in developing countries - equivalent to all the six to 14-year-olds in Europe and North America - never attend school; a further 150million leave before they can read and write. Girls are worst off, making up two-thirds of those currently out of school.
One in four adults - 872 million - in the developing world is illiterate, and the number is rising. Sub-Saharan Africa already accounts for one-third of the total out-of-school population; but on present trends, it could account for three-quarters in 15 years' time.
Fifty years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed free and compulsory education to be a basic human right. Ten years on, a World Conference on education promised primary education for all by the year 2000 but that promise slipped back to 2015 just five years later.
One of the reasons children fail to attend school in developing countries is that their families are expected to pay for them - which many simply cannot afford to do.
For those that do attend, poor conditions and overwhelming pupil numbers can make learning impossible. Kevin Watkins, Oxfam senior policy adviser, describes a school he saw recently in north Ghana: "There were 120 children sitting on two fallen down telegrah poles outside. There was one teacher, no blackboard or chalk, not a single book, not a single pencil or chair. And parents are having to pay for that."
As a result, teaching standards are very low with a heavy emphasis on rote learning. "When I started teaching in the 1970s, I was teaching a class of 40 pupils; now it can be 180 or 200," says a primary teacher in Tanzania.
The cost of providing universal primary education would be, according to Oxfam, in the region of pound;5billion a year, for the next 10 years: the equivalent of four days' worth of global military spending.
Oxfam is calling for a dual strategy, whereby poor countries receive international aid only if they show evidence of their own commitment. Africa, for instance, might receive pound;2billion of the pound;3.6billion it needs for education every year from international aid, on the condition that it invests the remaining pound;1.6billion from its own resources.
Oxfam is keen to involve British primary schools in its Education Now campaign. In conjunction with Action Aid, and the National Union of Teachers, it has devised a primary school assembly script - a 10-minute dramatisation of the plight of children receiving little or no schooling - which will be distributed in early April to all primary schools in England and Wales.
Children will then be invited to enter a national competition by sending a letter, or picture, to Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, calling for change.
Five hundred primary and secondary schools in the UK are already linked up with other schools down the Greenwich Meridian line, including in Algeria, Mali, Ghana and Togo, through the On the Line project launched last year by Oxfam, the WWF and Channel Four. This shows how people across the world wake up at around the same time but lead vastly different lives.
For details call Oxfam Action Aid on 020 7561 7564 or e-mail: www.oxfam.org.ukcoolplanet