Everyone deserves an education, but the benefits go far beyond just learning: Children who are born to educated mothers are less likely to be stunted or malnourished. Each additional year of maternal education also reduces the child mortality rate by 2%. And in developing low-income countries, every additional year of education can increase a person’s future income by an average of 10%.
Millennium Development Goal 2 set out to achieve universal primary education. By 2015, it said, all children everywhere should “be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.”
Back in 2000, the worst areas for education were Sub-Saharan Africa, with just 52% of pupils enrolled in education. Southern Asia came close behind at 75%. The goal has seen significant gains in developing regions, reaching 91% enrollment across all countries (up from 83% in 2000), but the improvements are far from equal. Sub-Saharan Africa still lags, at just 80%.
In fact, Sub-Saharan Africa is a perfect case study of what holds universal education back. The region actually made the largest gains–with an increase of 86% in school enrollments since 1990–but war, poverty, and an explosion in the primary-school-age population still leave it behind everywhere else.
Conflict is one of the biggest reasons for children to miss school, even after they have enrolled. According to the MDG Goals Report, “Among Syrian refugee children of primary and lower secondary school age (6 to 14 years) in Lebanon, the enrollment rate is estimated to be around 12 percent.”
Another reason is gender. Whereas 37% of boys are expected never to attend school, that figure jumps to 48% for girls. The other big factor is poverty. “Children in the poorest households were four times as likely to be out of school as children in the richest households,” says the report.
Overall, though, just 57 million primary-school-age kids are out of school worldwide, compared to 100 million in 2000.
In the quest to reach the goals, the most important changes have been the abolishing of school fees, improvement in infrastructure–building schools, supplying water and electricity–and “social protection,” which involves things like cash transfers for the most disadvantaged children. Cash transfers involve giving money to families so they can pay for education, and often those payments are conditional on the children attending school.
One of the biggest changes is the abolition of school fees. School is now free in most countries, with 15 Sub-Saharan countries introducing laws to abolish fees, partly due to its popularity as an election platform for politicians in African countries. In the 1990s, when the first wave of abolition of fees hit, schools were almost overwhelmed when students began rolling in. Since then, enrollments have been staggered to slow the strain on the education system.
The new Global Goals’ fourth goal continues the work of MDG 2: By 2030, the hope is that all children will have free primary school (which includes ending the gender disparity in education), be literate, and be receiving “an education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.” That’s a lot to ask when 57 million kids still aren’t in school at all, but a lot can be achieved in 15 years.