The Emerging World’s Education Imperative

NEW DELHI – Official delegations from the world’s nine most populous developing countries just met in New Delhi to discuss a subject vital for their countries’ futures: education. The meeting of ministers and others from Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan, known as the E-9, is the latest in a series of encounters held every two years to fulfill the pledge of “education for all” by 2015.

The E-9 account for 54% of the world’s population, 42.3% of children not in school, 58% of young illiterates (aged 15-24), and 67% of adult illiterates (two-thirds of whom are women). So the challenges are enormous: children, from families too poor to think about education, beyond the reach of schooling and too malnourished to study; and too few schools, classrooms, teaching resources, and adequately trained teachers. Rampant illiteracy underpins other problems, including exploding populations, gender imbalances, and widespread poverty.

India provides a good example of how these problems should be addressed. A decade ago, 30 million Indian children were not in school; today, the figure is three million. A far-reaching Right to Education Act, obliging the state and central governments to provide (as a constitutional right) eight years of free and compulsory education to all children between six and 14, has had a large impact. And free mid-day meals at school are a powerful incentive to children from poor families to attend school and stay there.

This does not mean that all enrolled students will emerge prepared for the information age; but getting children into school is a start. India also needs a relevant curriculum and skilled teachers who can motivate students to learn it – in short, an overdue emphasis on quality, in addition to officals’ understandable focus on access and inclusion.