Sophie McBain picks up politics, business and international development stories from around the globe

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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?

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

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.