12.01.2010 -

Interview with Samer Al-Samarrai, Senior Policy Analyst for EFA Global Monitoring Report 2010

UNESCO flagship education report warns of a ‘generation of lost children’

Why are millions of children still missing out on their right to education? That’s the question examined in this year’s EFA Global Monitoring Report (GMR) 2010, Reaching the marginalized, to be launched this month in New York.

The EFA GMR 2010 defines marginalization as distinct from inequality in that it is acute and persistent disadvantage rather than the unfair distribution of education opportunity. It focuses on the fact that while progress has been made, the failure to reach the millions of children excluded from education by poverty, gender, location, ethnicity, disability and language means the 2015 Education for All (EFA) goals remain out of reach. And the worsening effect of the financial crisis has led to fears that, in the world’s poorest countries, a generation of ‘lost children’ who will never benefit from education is being created.

Part of the challenge of tackling marginalization lies in its diversity. Child labourers in the Philippines, low-income black children in the US and low-caste girls in India all suffer very different educational problems which call for adapted solutions and policies. What they have in common is that they are at the bottom of the scale when it comes to access and achievement in their societies.

The report paints a disturbing picture of the prospect of achieving EFA by 2015 but Mr Al-Samarrai makes no excuse for the stark message.

“It is coming out in a global context that is truly worrying for EFA and we don’t pull any punches in addressing that. More households are experiencing poverty, malnutrition levels are rising and, at the same time, levels of education and aid budgets are coming under increased pressure. Countries like Sweden and Ireland have already made cuts to their aid budgets.

“Without a concerted effort by national governments and the international community, the financial crisis is likely to have a big negative impact on the prospect of achieving the goals and without specifically addressing the needs of the most marginalised and deprived, EFA will not be achieved. And it is not a question of just extending the same opportunities to these groups, they require special attention and special policies.”

In order to better inform policymaking the report fills data gaps using a new tool to measure marginalization and draws together case studies from across the world.

“Achieving EFA will require a special focus on addressing the causes of marginalisation but there is a lack of good information on the extent of education marginalization,” said Mr Al-Samarrai.

The Report has developed a Deprivation and Marginalization in Education (DME) database drawing on a range of household surveys covering 80 countries and providing a more nuanced picture of education poverty (those with less than 4 years of education), extreme education poverty (those with less than 2 years of education) and those in the bottom 20 per cent (with the fewest years of education in a given society).

Marginalized children present a special challenge to policymakers as they are hard to reach and, once in school, hard to retain. They are heavily under-represented in higher education and become adults who are often illiterate, unskilled and with little voice in society.

The report proposes an integrated response to the problem which sets marginalization within a wider framework for poverty reduction and social inclusion. Policy responses focus on access and affordability, guaranteeing entitlements and opportunities and improving the learning environment.

“When you look at the education provided to marginalized children it is often of much poorer quality with fewer qualified teachers available and more limited levels of key teaching and learning materials. We need to allocate education resources more equitably and at the same time provide incentives for the marginalized to attend and stay in school,” said Mr Al-Samarrai.

Social protection programmes which offer nutritional and financial support to families have already proved successful in regions like Latin America.

Other factors which can reduce the effects of marginalization are improved early intervention and maternal health, the removal of school fees, the provision of teaching and learning materials, building schools closer to isolated communities, and improving teacher training.

“The report focuses on early childhood care and education and primary education because marginalisation starts from the very beginning and unless it is dealt with at this stage exclusion at higher levels is harder to tackle. However, there are also second chance options for marginalised adults such as literacy and skills training,” said Mr Al-Samarrai.

“In the case of ethnic minorities the report makes a strong case for a language policy which offers intercultural and bilingual education to improve the relevance of education and to help address the social exclusion of the marginalized.”

How can countries suffering the effects of the financial crisis be persuaded to continue or increase funding for education?

“We have already seen that the response of certain developed countries has been to invest yet more in education because it is seen as a way out of the crisis and a platform for future economic growth,” he said.

“For developing countries the case that education is a way of moving out of crisis into sustained growth has to be put more strongly. Donors must also live up to their commitments on financing basic education.”

To aid policymakers further the report has produced a new set of global estimates for the costs of achieving EFA by 2015. The estimates point to the need for an increased commitment to education on the part of national governments as well as a substantial increase in aid commitments to basic education.

The Report also highlights the need to improve aid effectiveness and substantially reform the Education Fast Track Initiative if the EFA goals are to be achieved.

Asked what effect he thinks the GMR has Mr Al-Samarrai said: “Its strength is that it is recognised as an important and reliable source of information about progress towards EFA. It produces strong arguments to put pressure on governments to honour the commitments they have signed up to.

“It also provides policy makers with a wealth of examples of successful education policies that they can learn from. I have seen for myself when working in Bangladesh how powerful a tool it can be for countries to see how they measure up against others.”

The EFA GMR 2010, Reaching the marginalized, which is developed annually by an independent team hosted by UNESCO, will be launched in New York on January 19.

Related link

EFA Global Monitoring Report website

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