18.03.2011 - Bangkok Post

“Jomtien +20: focus on education capital” – ‘Bangkok Post’, Thailand

© Bangkok Post

Editorial article by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, published on ‘Bangkok Post’ of Thailand, on Friday 18 March 2011. The article, as published by the Bangkok Post, follows here below.

Jomtien +20: focus on education capital

By Irina Bokova, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

Just over 20 years ago in Jomtien some 155 countries signed up to the World Declaration on Education for All, spearheading a movement to close vast gaps in learning opportunities.

That same year, 1990, the notion that national income alone was not enough to measure development came into the spotlight, with the creation of the Human Development Index. The premise was simple: people are a nation's real wealth; their well-being from life expectancy to literacy and educational achievement has a direct impact on growth.

Twenty years on, this is truer than ever.

The world is changing fast. Our societies are ever more inter-connected and integrated. The call for adaptation is increasing, as are the demands for knowledge and skills to build green economies and to fight global pandemics.

A people cannot be rich without the first of riches: an education. Experience shows that no country can climb the human development ladder without steady investment in education.

Since Jomtien, the gains have been impressive. There are more children and young people in school than ever before. Progress accelerated when clear targets were adopted in 2000. In the space of a decade, an additional 52 million children have gained access to primary education. South and West Asia has halved the size of their out-of-school population. Many low-income countries have managed to close the gender gap in primary education.

The lessons of this experience are clear. Progress happens when governments put education first, when schools are built, teachers hired and trained, and fees are abolished.

At the same time, we know more now about what works and where efforts have to be focused. For example, it is not enough to look at the total numbers of enrolment and number of schools built, you need to identify who is missing out and why, and you need gear all efforts towards reaching the most marginalised and respect the principle of equity.

We also know that we need sharper instruments to assess the quality of education and better training for more qualified teachers. Equality and quality are vital for reaching the goal of education for all.

We know all of this, because for the last 10 years the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has been monitoring progress towards Education for All. Every year UNESCO's Global Monitoring Report has provided a detailed picture of the state of education in the world to help governments and societies to tackle pressing issues.

That picture leaves no place for complacency. Less than four years from the 2015 deadline, the world is not on track to reach Education for All goals. Progress is slowing, because achievements are fragile. Now 17% of the world's adult population remains without literacy skills. Girls continue to drop out of secondary school. Too many students still leave school with minimal reading and numeracy skills. Armed conflict alone is robbing 28 million children of the chance for a primary education. This is over 40% of the world's total out-of-school population.

Inequalities between and within countries are increasing. This is making our societies more insecure and divided. All of this is happening in the context of a global economic downturn.

The stakes are high because we also understand more clearly today education's multiplier benefits for tackling illness, hunger and poverty. If we want to succeed, we need to adopt an enlarged vision of education.

Education beats poverty and leads to higher income and productivity. Today 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills. This is equivalent to a 12% cut in world poverty.

Education saves lives. A child born to a mother who can read is 50% more likely to survive past age 5. Women with post-primary education are five times more likely than illiterate women to know about HIV/Aids.

In short, education brings sustainability to development. Despite times of austerity and because of them, we must invest in the power of education to transform societies.

This is what Jomtien +20 is about.

Our first priority must be to make equity the measure of all progress, with special attention to girls and women. Girls' education, especially at secondary level, is clearly the new frontier to build sustainable education systems, to empower women and mothers as agents of transformation. Learning assessments show that the best performing education systems are the most inclusive and equitable ones. Equity is not only just, it is also more cost-effective.

Second, we must focus on getting good teachers into classrooms, and improve the quality of education. Teaching is a noble profession. It has to be recognised as such to attract the best candidates and it has to be supported through training and decent working conditions. This is vital for making education a rewarding and worthwhile experience.

Finally, spending. All governments face hard times today. Where you invest reflects choices, and ultimately, a social vision. Twenty-one of the world's poorest countries are spending more on military budgets than primary education. This may not be the smartest development choice.

Education for All is achievable. It is a matter of will and it is a vision that investing in people is the soundest way to reduce poverty, drive economic recovery and build peace.

This is the message UNESCO will convey in Jomtien 20 years after our first historic meeting. There is no time to waste for education for all by 2015.

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