Education is the blossom of life

Rising numbers of children out of school in sub-Saharan Africa, significant numbers of children spending six years in primary school and still not being able to read a complete sentence - the latest report by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) paints a gloomy picture of the state of the world's education. Progress towards goals set in Dakar 12 years ago has been patchy, and the biggest failure, according to UNESCO, has been on the promise made there to equip teenagers and young adults with the skills they need for life.

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Importance of educating young people

Education is lifeIts Global Monitoring Report for 2012, published today, argues for the crucial importance of educating young people to the point where they are ready for the world of work, able at the very least to read, write and add up, and with the common sense, confidence and interpersonal skills needed for any kind of employment. As societies modernize, totally unskilled jobs tend to disappear. Factory or domestic workers are expected to be able to follow written instructions. Petty traders have to be able to deal with bureaucracy and manage their finances. Farmers cannot take advantage of new ideas without the education to hear about them and understand them.

As UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova says, "education is not only about making sure all children can attend school. It is about setting young people up for life by giving them opportunities to find decent work, earn a living, contribute to their communities and societies and fulfil their potential. At a wider level, it is about helping countries nurture the workforce they need to grow in the global economy."

For international funding, this has been the Cinderella sector of education. Donors have been happy to contribute to the achievement of the second goal set in Dakar - the provision of free and compulsory primary education for all. But UNESCO's latest report says that funding for secondary and vocational education often gets squeezed in favour of higher education.

Importance of education is life

Scholarships in donor countries

The report also notes that support for higher education often comes in the form of scholarships to study in the donor country. In 2012, it says around three-quarters of the direct aid to post-secondary education, US$3.1 billion, was allocated to these scholarships, and spent in the donor country itself.

In 2010, its says, "almost 40 percent of Japan's direct aid to education went to scholarships for students to study in Japan. For the amount it costs for one Nepalese student to study in Japan, as many as 229 young people could have access to secondary education in Nepal." A diversion of funds away from these expensive scholarships, and into general secondary and vocational education, it suggests, would be one way to address the huge gap in foundation skills.

The report's authors also give a nudge to the so-called "new donors", countries like Brazil, China and India, which have not had much focus on education in the past. Only 2 percent, for instance, of the $950 million a year which India commits to other developing countries is directed at education. These donors, the authors say, could become important players in aid to skills development if they target their financing at disadvantaged young people, learning from their own experience of linking investment in skills development with labour market reforms and poverty reduction.

Momentum stalled

As for what needs to be done, clearly the first step is to get all children to complete primary school. The momentum to get children into school after the Dakar meeting has stalled in the past few years. In sub-Saharan Africa the number of children out of school actually increased between 2008 and 2010.

Then the children who are in school need to learn the basics. Some of the most shocking facts revealed by this survey concern the quality of some primary education. In Ghana, for instance, it says that in 2008 over half of women and over one third of men aged 15-29 could not read a sentence at all, despite having completed six years of school. A further 28 percent of young women and 33 percent of young men could only read part of a sentence. One in five young people in the Arab states, and almost one in three in sub-Saharan Africa lack even the most basic skills.

"Education is not only about making sure all children can attend school. It is about setting young people up for life by giving them opportunities to find decent work, earn a living, contribute to their communities and societies and fulfil their potential"

For those who have already left school the answer may be Second-Chance programmes. UNESCO praises some of those which are in place, often provided by NGOs, but point out that they reach only a fraction of those who need them.

In terms of training for employment, the report suggests pooling resources from government, international donors, and private foundations into a training fund, possibly boosting it by taxes and levies on companies, which, after all, will benefit from a more able workforce, and enlisting the private sector to help with the training. It says that both Tunisia and Nepal have had success with this kind of initiative, and Tunisia has managed to offer skills development to a quarter of its unemployed young people.

South African is pursuing a similar strategy. Education and vocational training minister, Emmanuel 'Blade' Nzimande, said that all infrastructure projects in South Africa now have to incorporate a training component. "If we build a stadium we must not only count the number of bricks that have been put in there, but we must also be able to count the number of apprenticeships that have been attached to such a project."

He added: "In South Africa today, as in many developing countries, a contradictory situation exists where high unemployment sits side by side with skills shortages, highlighting that closer alignment between the skills produced and those that are required by employers is key."

Exploitative apprenticeships

For the informal sector, most societies have some traditional form of apprenticeship to allow youngsters to learn a trade - in general very beneficial and often the way into employment. But unregulated apprenticeships can be exploitative, with the young person being used as unpaid labour, and the authors also warn that they may not help the more disadvantaged young people, since "masters" are often reluctant to take on girls, members of other tribes or candidates from poorer families.

Giving apprenticeships a formal status can help and certifying skills and experience through a national qualification can enhance the value of the training and make the apprentices more employable.

Rural youth is the hardest to reach, but innovative Farmer Field Schools in East Africa have shown what can be done. For those who went through these programmes, crop value per acre increased by 32 percent on average, but by 253 percent for those who had had no formal schooling. Income increased 61 percent overall, but by 224 percent for families whose household head had had no previous education.

The rewards for getting it right are great, for societies as well as individuals. The report points out that investment in education and skills underpinned the boom in the Asian "tiger" economies. Africa is now starting to grow and some of its countries are aspiring to middle-income status. Now is the time to start preparing the workforce which that transition will need.

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