Governments should be held accountable for their failure to deliver promised aid for education, a major study says, after it was revealed that goals for universal primary schooling are likely to be missed by as much as seven decades for the most disadvantaged groups.
In 2000, representatives from 164 countries signed a commitment to give all young people access to primary education and provide equal opportunities for girls and boys. But a damning report on the Education for All goals, published this week by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), has found that not one will be met by 2015. The situation amounts to a "global learning crisis", the report says.
It estimates that at least 250 million primary children are not learning the basics of reading and maths. Of these, 130 million have completed at least four years of primary education, while the rest have received little or no schooling. A quarter of young people in developing countries are unable to read or write basic sentences, the report adds.
Although progress has been made towards all six goals, the target of universal primary education will be missed "by a wide margin". On current trends, it will take until 2072 for the poorest young women in developing countries to become literate, and the universal completion of primary school among the poorest girls in sub-Saharan Africa will not be achieved until 2086.
Irina Bokova, director-general of Unesco, said there was a desperate need for better teachers and training. "Teachers have the future of this generation in their hands," she said. "We need to make sure that there is an explicit commitment to equity in new global education goals set after 2015, with indicators tracking the progress of the marginalised so that no one is left behind."
When the Education for All goals were established, governments agreed that no country would be prevented from reaching them because of a lack of resources. But Unesco is now warning that $26 billion (pound;15.7 billion) is needed to deliver the goals - and this sum is growing all the time.
"Austerity is no excuse for donors to abandon their pledges to the world's poorest," the report warns. "One of the biggest failures of the [Education for All] period has been fulfilling the pledge that no country would be thwarted in achieving its goals due to lack of resources.To avoid this happening after 2015, national governments, aid donors and other education funders need to be held to account for their commitments to provide the resources necessary to reach education goals."
Education aid peaked in 2010 and is now falling, the report says - and there is no sign that this decline will stop. Not only has education aid dropped overall but low-income countries have also experienced the biggest cuts.
Unesco estimates that an additional 1.6 million teachers are needed and its report calls for better training and pay, pointing out that it is common for teachers in some countries to take on second jobs because their salaries are so low.
Fred van Leeuwen, general secretary of Education International, a global federation of teaching unions, said: "In many places, teachers work on precarious contracts, earn salaries below the minimum wage and lack the fundamental qualifications, skills and learning materials to teach.
"Without the appropriate investments in teachers' motivation and skills through training and continuing professional development.quality education for all will not be achieved."
In conflict zones, where half of the world's out-of-school children live, education receives just 1.4 per cent of humanitarian aid rather than the 4 per cent the UN has called for.
Earlier this month, former British prime minister Gordon Brown, who is now UN special envoy for global education, spoke about plans to educate Syrian refugees by offering them lessons in existing Lebanese schools outside school hours. "By fighting for the fundamental right to education for the children of Syria, we can establish the principle that even in the most hopeless of situations learning can continue," Mr Brown said.
Desmond Bermingham, director of charity Save the Children's global education initiative, told TES that the Unesco report was a "wake-up call".
"The strong emphasis that high priority should be given to the children who are the poorest, marginalised or living in conflict areas is welcome," he said. "We have seen a falling away in recent years from donors delivering aid for education, and developing countries' own governments have been pulling back on education as well. That needs to be reversed. Reaching the poorest children will be more difficult and more expensive - that means we need to put more effort in, not less."
Expected progress on Education for All goals by 2015:
Goal 1: expand early childhood care and education
Out of 141 countries, 68 will reach 80 per cent enrolment in pre-primary education
Goal 2: provide free and compulsory primary education for all
Out of 122 countries, 68 will achieve universal primary enrolment
Goal 3: promote learning and life skills for young people and adults
Of the 82 countries for which data is available, 38 will achieve universal lower-secondary enrolment
Goal 4: increase adult literacy
The adult illiteracy rate will be 14 per cent by 2015 - the goal was 12 per cent
Goal 5: achieve gender parity
Out of 161 countries, 112 will achieve parity in primary education
Goal 6: improve the quality of education
In primary schooling, the student-teacher ratio exceeds 40:1 in 26 out of 162 countries.