Delegates Reminded of Elusiveness of Universal Schooling
As delegates to this year’s Education International conference here pledged to step up their efforts to improve school attendance worldwide, the site of the meeting itself served as a striking reminder of just how big a challenge that will be.
It was in 1990 at this same resort city in Southeast Asia that the goal of achieving universal primary school enrollment by the end of the decade was announced at a world conference on education sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the World Bank, UNICEF, and the United Nations Development Program. Now, a year after that original deadline has passed, even those who made the commitment concede that the objective remains a distant hope.
According to the latest available figures, some 113 million children of primary school age worldwide are not in school, making for an enrollment rate of about 84 percent. And among the least developed countries, fewer than 60 percent of children who begin a primary education wind up staying in school through the 5th grade.
Here at Education International’s July 25-29 meeting, a host of factors were blamed for the fact that more progress hasn’t been made, including a lack of financial commitment from wealthy nations to provide help, the drain that debt servicing places on the economies of developing countries, and an increase in child labor in some regions. And many parents in impoverished regions, officials here said, still need to be convinced of the value of sending their children to school.
The groups that set the original goal met again last year in Dakar, Senegal, and pushed their target date to 2015. But a key interim deadline comes next year, when individual governments struggling to increase enrollment have been asked to produce specific plans for achieving universal attendance in the next decade and a half. After that, Education International officials argue, the onus will be on the world’s richer nations to provide the help needed to carry out those plans.
“No country should be denied the right to give education for all its children in their country if it’s just due to their lack of resources,” said Ulf Fredriksson, EI’s education coordinator. “So we will be keeping an eye on these developments, first pushing governments to put in place these action plans, and to make sure that these plans get financed, both by the countries themselves and by the development community.”
Despite the symbolism attached to the venue, Education International did not initially intend for this year’s conference to take place in Jomtien. The organization had planned to hold the event in Katmandu, Nepal, but decided to change the site to Thailand in light of the unrest that followed the shooting deaths this past spring of Nepal’s king and several other members of the royal family. (The switch was so last-minute that the conference materials used here still bore the image of Mount Everest.)
Emulating the national meetings of its member organizations in many countries—such as the National Education Association in the United States— Education International also dealt with a wide range of politically charged issues within its main decisionmaking body, known as the World Congress.
Among other measures, the congress took up resolutions denouncing the fallen government of Alberto Fujimori in Peru, condemning human-rights violations in Afghanistan, and calling on Japan to reject the use of textbooks that play down the atrocities committed by that country during the World War II era.
One of the actions taken here was the approval of an international “Declaration of Ethics” for education employees. The statement lists more than 20 expectations of behavior for those in the profession.
Among them are: keeping professional knowledge and skills up to date, working to involve parents in their children’s education, and providing professional help to colleagues, particularly those entering the field. Before approving the measure, delegates added a provision declaring that teachers and other school employees be provided with enough resources to ensure they can meet such standards.
“I think it’s really important because we have to say that we are prepared to do what we believe in, and also what we think our responsibilities are,” Sheena Hanley, a deputy general secretary of Education International, said of the declaration. “In many places, everyone else is telling us what our responsibilities should be. Everyone else is telling us what they expect of us. And I think we have to say upfront that this is what we as teachers think is important in our jobs and in our relationships with others.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook