At a global education meeting in Muscat, Oman this month, more than 300 participants discussed what still needs to be done to achieve universal access to quality education—and how far they are from that goal.
Government ministers, organization representatives, academics, researchers and others critically reviewed six objectives of an effort known as Education for All that were established at the World Education Forum in Senegal 14 years ago. Those goals of early childhood care and education, universal primary education, youth and adult skills, adult literacy, gender parity and equality and quality of education were supposed to be achieved by 2015.
Globally, not a single Education for All goal will be achieved by the deadline, according to the 2013-2014 EFA Global Monitoring Report—the main resource for the Oman meeting. The report “vividly underlines the fact that people in the most marginalized groups have continued to be denied opportunities for education over the decade.”
In the Arab world, most countries are far from reaching the goals, said Hamed Alhamami, director of UNESCO’s Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States, based in Beirut, Lebanon.
“Quality of education is the main concern,” Alhamami said. “Despite the fact that a lot of effort has been made in the Arab world, especially in the high-income countries, the quality of education is very questionable.” Countries in the region need to review their budgets as well as strategies for improving education and teachers, Alhamami said. “They should put more finances toward education,” he added.
But nations have made some headway.
“The key message is: There has been progress and across some of the goals in particular, faster progress in the earlier years of the decade,” said Pauline Rose, former director of the EFA Global Monitoring Report, which is supported by UNESCO and published yearly.
“In more recent years, the progress toward, for example, decreasing the number of children out of school has stagnated,” said Rose, who is also a professor of international education at the University of Cambridge and presented at the conference. “There’s been a slowing down of progress and this has been largely due to the failure to reach the most marginalized.”
In the Arab world, adult illiteracy remains the primary challenge, along with educational quality. In 2011, illiteracy in Arab countries stood at 54 percent, Alhamami said. Worldwide in 2011, 774 million adults were illiterate—about the same as the number of illiterate adults in 2000, when the goals were set.
There was progress in other areas. Enrollment of Arab youth in primary education rose from 79 percent in 1999 to 89 percent in 2011, Alhamami said, which is a significant increase particularly given population growth. Moreover, by 2011, around half of the countries in the region including Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Syria had achieved gender parity in primary education, he said.
However, 4.8-million basic education-age children regionally were out of school in 2011, down from 5 million in 2010—at best a slight advancement.
The conference in Oman, held in mid May, not only focused on reviewing the past, but also on looking at future next steps. A main meeting outcome was consensus on targets for the post-2015 period that, to a large extent, are similar to the original Education for All goals, Rose said. “In a sense there wasn’t much debate about the fact that these targets were needed,” she added.
Participants focused on the importance of identifying the skills young people need in terms of getting work and becoming global citizens. These two issues are particularly pertinent to the Arab world, which has a large youth population, faces challenges in employment skills and a mismatch between work and schooling, she said. As educators try to achieve the original six Education for All goals, they are also trying to sharpen them.
“These are areas that are, in a sense, more refined and more focused than they were in the Education for All goals,” Rose added.