This week governments will promise primary education for all the globe's children. The problem is an identical pledge a decade ago ended in failure. Brendan O'Malley reports and, right, talks to UK minister Clare Short about her hopes for universal schooling
THE BIGGEST gathering for 10 years of the world's education ministers and experts opens in Dakar, Senegal, on Wednesday with the goal of giving primary education to every boy and girl on the planet top of the agenda.
The World Education Forum, hosted by Education For All - an arm of the United Nations education, science and culture organisation - is set to agree a target of 2015 for achieving that and 2005 for equal access to primary school for girls and boys.
But those with long memories will know we have heard it all before - in Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990, when the same primary education target was set for the year 2000.
"There's a danger of glossing over the fact that we failed on every one of the goals," warned David Archer, education director of ActionAid at a UNESCO press conference.
After Jomtien the number of children in primary school rose from 599 million in 1990 to 681m in 1998. On average 10m more children were going to school every year in the 1990s, double the average increase in the 1980s. But because of population increases the percentage going to primary school rose by only 4 per cent.
There are still 125m children who never go to school and of those who do, 150m drop out before they complete the primary cycle.
In Sub-Saharan Africa the percentage enrolled has actually fallen - 42m are not in school - and the plight of girls has worsened.
The consensus of aid agencies is that Jomtien's fine words were not backed up by deeds.
Only a puny 2 per cent of global education spending comes from overseas aid - and as aid budgets have declined so has the amount given to education - while 63 per cent comes from the budgets of developing government's themselves.
In the hardest-hit regions governments face huge obstacles to expanding education. In Africa, for instance, population growth, spiralling conflicts, corruption, natural disasters like the Mozambique floods and the Aids pandemic have swallowed scarce resources that might otherwise have gone on education.
Even if governments could afford them, education systems cannot flourish when populations are forced to migrate by war, famine or flood; and schools will not be built f 50 per cent of government spending on procurement is lost in fraud - as even go-ahead Uganda's finance minister admitted last month.
How - they would ask if they could only admit to the problem - do you maintain standards when teachers are dying of Aids at the rate of 1,300 a year (Zambia 1998)? Or when 20 to 30 per cent of pupils have lost one or more parents to the disease, suffering both trauma and loss of income, that leaves the family unable to pay the small additional costs required to send a child to school.
Despite this, there's a feeling at UNESCO that this time the process can really get started.
Svein Osttveit, executive secretary of the EFA Forum, believes that following the first global assessment of education, there is now much better information about the problems and how they can be solved.
A key objective at Dakar is to set up a credible organisation to monitor progress and provide support to all countries who need it. This can't be done without regular, reliable collection of data. In many less developed countries that has never happened before. In fact the Ugandan government admits it can't even tell you what its national education budget was in 1996, the year before it made a dramatic commitment to primary education.
Aid agencies want a pledge of $8 billion to the project. But Mr Osttveit is not optimistic. He admits there's "a clear hesitancy among donor countries to commit to specific financial targets".
Donors like Britain argue that it's not just about money: to make education work you need to invest in other fields, such as the civil society and democracy so that governments can be held to account by those outside the country's elite.
So will Dakar be worthwhile? Mr Archer, though critical of the way the agenda has been set, hopes so. "It's an opportunity for donors from the north to make serious commitments to tackle this problem," he said. "So it is a hugely important symbolic moment."
POINTS FOR DAKAR AGENDA
* 125 million children don't go to school; 60 per cent of them are girls.
* Poverty is the biggest factor preventing countries from achieving education for all.
* World Bank annual lending to education has doubled since 1990, 44 per cent of it goes on basic education.
* Since 1990, among the world's highest-population countries, the biggest improvements in literacy have been accompanied by the sharpest falls in population growth rates.