You are advised to spend about 20 minutes on the questions which follow this reading passage.
The education gap
Education is the passport to modern life, and a pre-condition of national prosperity. But more than a quarter of the world's adults - 900 million - cannot read or write, and more than 100 million young children are deprived of even a primary school education. In most developing countries, after decades of educational expansion, spending on learning is falling. The illiterate are virtually helpless in a world ruled by the written word, where notices and official papers can seem a mass of meaningless hieroglyphics. People who cannot decipher them are at the mercy of those who can; many, as a result, have been cheated of their rights or their land.
Studies show that people with even a basic education are healthier and eat better. They are more likely to plan their families and their children are more likely to survive. According to the World Bank, just four years of primary education enables farmers to increase productivity by ten per cent, often the difference between hunger and sufficiency. National economic returns from education outstrip those from most other forms of investment.
Enrolment: rise and fall
As they became independent, most developing countries enthusiastically embraced education. Two decades of astonishing expansion followed. Between 1960 and 1981, the world’s thirty-two poorest countries (excluding India and China, which have long had good records) increased the proportion of their children enrolled in primary school from thirty-eight to seventy-two per cent. The thirty-eight next poorest achieved almost universal primary school enrolment by 1980; up from about two-thirds in 1960. It seemed as if it would not be long before every child alive could be sure of going to school.
By the end of the 1080s, that dream had turned to bitter disillusion. The decade brought economic disaster to developing countries. They slumped when rich nations went into recession at the beginning of the 1980s, the subsequent recovery passed them by and they were hit again by the renewed recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By 1989, enrolment rates had dropped in one out of every five developing countries. In some African countries, the number of children in primary schools declined by a third between 1980 and 1985. Tanzania’s universal primary school enrolment fell dramatically during this period. Unesco’s Director-General, Federico Mayor, warns that this threatens to ‘set back the countries of the South by a whole generation or even more’.
The proportion of national expenditure going to education declined in more than half of developing countries over the 1980s. In the world’s thirty-seven poorest countries, the average expenditure per head on education dropped by a quarter. In Africa as a whole, says the World Bank, only $0.60 a year is spent on educational materials for each student, whilst it estimates ‘minimum requirements’ at $5.00.
Illiteracy and the poor
In industrialized countries, absolute illiteracy was largely eradicated half a century ago; they contain only two per cent of the world’s illiterate. ‘Functional illiteracy’, however, remains; in Canada, the literacy of a quarter of all adults is seriously inadequate; in the United States, estimates range from five to twenty-five per cent: in France, the total numbers range from two to eight million people, depending on the study. Most are among the poorest members of their societies.
Generally speaking, the poorer a country, the higher the number of illiterate; two-thirds of adults in the very poorest countries cannot read or write. Furthermore, the poorest individuals suffer most. The poorer a child’s family, the less likely he (or, particularly, she) is to start school and the more likely it is that those who do start will drop out.
The disadvantaged countryside
More people in the Third World live in the countryside, where schools and teachers are always scarcer. But even in the cities, the poor miss out. In Calcutta, over sixty per cent of children do not attend school because they have to work to keep the family going, or look after younger siblings to enable their mothers to work. Two-thirds of the children who either never start school or drop out early are girls. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterates are women. Yet women’s education is particularly important. The World Bank identifies it as ‘perhaps the single most important determinant of family health and nutrition’, and its research shows that infant mortality rates fall steadily, and dramatically, for every year women spend at school. But tradition, prejudices and the burden of work to be done at home ensure that daughters are pulled out of school first. In the first grade of Kampala’s primary schools, the sexes are evenly balanced; by the seventh grade, there are more than twice as many boys as girls.
Primary education: the productive dollar
Every dollar invested in primary school education, according to another World Bank study, is fifty per cent more productive than one invested in secondary schooling, and gives twice as much as one spent on universities. Yet throughout the Third World, these spending priorities are reversed.
A few countries have started to change their priorities, emphasizing primary education. Zimbabwe doubled its number of primary schools in its first five years of independence; the proportion of its budget spent on education is the fifth highest in the world, and the curriculum has been re-oriented to meet local needs. Bangladesh has opened more than 2,500 basic village primary schools with appropriate syllabuses since 1985, at an annual cost of just $15.00 per pupil. Only 1.5 per cent of the children drop out, compared to sixty per cent of their peers in the ordinary primary schools. Moreover, ninety-five per cent of all pupils, the majority girls, continue their education after leaving.
Nonetheless, all these countries are under harsh economic pressure. There is little hope for the children of the Third World countries, even if their governments do change their priorities, unless their countries are enabled to develop.
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