(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)
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 fulfil the pledge of “education for all” by 2015.
The E-9 account for 54 percent of the world’s population, 42.3 percent of children not in school, 58 percent of young illiterates (aged 15-24), and 67 percent 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 officials’ understandable focus on access and inclusion.