Worldwide schooling drive off to slow start

20th April 2001 at 01:00
It's a year since the world's leaders promised primary education for all at the Dakar summit. In the first of a two-part series, Brendan O'Malley asks how much progress has been made

Campaigners are sharply divided on whether there has been progress in the worldwide drive to provide a good primary education for every child.

This Thursday marks the first anniversary of the start of the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, where 180 countries pledged to achieve primary education for all by 2015 and to ensure boys and girls had equal access to schooling by 2005.

Sir John Daniel, the new assistant director for education at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, said that, though the campaign had moved slowly in its first year, there was "a sense of a train that's very quickly gathering momentum".

But non-governmental organisations said the Dakar targets were already slipping off the agenda in developing countries. Moreover, those countries that had drawn up national education plans were putting them at risk by failing to involve local people, organisations and NGOs.

Anne Jellema, international co-ordinator for Elimu - a network of non-governmental groups campaigning for the right to education - said without involving local people, politicans could not discover and address the real reasons why children are not in school or drop out. Also, without grassroots involvement, the plans would not be implemented on the ground. Roofs would remain unrepaired, teachers unpaid and textbooks not delivered.

Sir John, previously vice chancellor of the Open University,acknowledged that the director general of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura, had taken a long time to install his team of assistant directors. Campaigners say this has left the Education For All drive rudderless for most of the year as UNESCO is co-ordinating the programme.

But Sir John, who applied for his post last August, believed that the selection process had had to prove itself open and fair. The organisation has been dogged by allegations of cronyism in the past.

UNESCO aims to assess by the end of May developing countries' progress on their promise to draw up national education plans by 2002.

Ms Jellema said few countries other than Tanzania and Zambia had taken steps since Dakar to make basic education free, even though fees are often the main reason why the poor do not go to school.

But the biggest barrier to progress towards the Dakar targets was lack of political will, she said. "Most politicians send their kids to private school so they have little interest in making sure children have access."

Sir John, meanwhile, said there were hopeful signs that wealthy countries would increase international aid and singled out the Italian and British governments for advocating the setting up of international funds to help countries tackle child poverty and illiteracy.

He pointed out that at Dakar the rich countries had pledged that no country that was serious about achieving education for all would fail for lack of funds and said UNESCO would "go and collect on that promise".

But it seems the jury will remain out on progess until the first target date of December next year.

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