A third of school children aren't even learning the basics

250 million school-age children worldwide can't read, write or do a basic maths sum. 130 million of these children are enrolled in school. So what's going wrong?

A third of primary-age children are failing to learn the basics, according to a report released by UNESCO today. 250 million primary age children across the world are unable to read or write, or to do basic maths. And 130m of these children are in school.

The report has found that one tenth of global spending on education is being lost on poor-quality education where pupils are failing to learn, and the global cost of this failure in education policy amounts to $129m. Meanwhile, 57 million primary school age pupils don’t attend school at all.

So what’s going wrong? A big problem is ensuring that there are enough well-trained teachers. In a third of the countries surveyed by UNESCO fewer than three quarters of teachers have been trained to national standards. It estimates that 1.6 million new teachers are needed if universal primary education is to be achieved. Making sure that women go into teaching is also important, with girls still less likely to be enrolled in school and to complete school than men.

There are practical problems too. In Tanzania only 3.5 per cent of children have sole access to a textbook. In Chad, only one in four schools has a toilet, and only one in three of these have a toilet for girls.

There’s a powerful link between education and poverty. One half of pupils who don’t spend a single day in primary school are in conflict-afflicted countries, and within countries, poorer children are less likely to complete school.

But this also means that rich countries face an education challenge: in high income countries schools still fail significant minorities. In France, fewer than 60 per cent of immigrants have reached the minimum benchmark in reading. According to the Sutton Trust, in the UK the gap between high-achieving 15 year old boys from the most and least advantaged backgrounds is equivalent to 30 months (2.5 years) of schooling. An independent day school student is 55 times more likely to win an Oxbridge place, and 22 times more likely to go to a top-ranked university than a state school student from a poor household.

This isn't just failing young people, it's hurting national economies. In the UK, the estimated cost of poor social mobility is £140bn, or 4 per cent of GDP. Last year the World Bank predicted that average growth rates across Sub-Saharan Africa would exceed 5 per cent, making it one of the fastest-growing regions over the next three years. Just imagine what it could achieve if it could tackle its poor rates of school enrolment (almost a quarter of children don't go to school) and educational attainment.

School children in Tanzania, where only 3.5 per cent of pupils have sole access to a text book. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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