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.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump