Education International
Education International

Interview with Ulrika Peppler Barry: At the Crossroads of Destiny

published 3 June 2010 updated 23 March 2011

Ulrika Peppler Barry is the team manager in charge of the Education For All Global Monitoring Report at UNESCO, and the Deputy Executive Secretary of UNESCO’s Education For All Forum. The French teacher union SNUipp-FSU met with Ulrika in Paris to reflect on the opportunities and challenges involved in achieving the Education For All goals by 2015.

It is precisely 10 years since the Education For All goals were adopted. Can you give an assessment of how far we have come?

There has been undeniable progress in a large number of countries and in many different areas but we are still a long way from our goal. We know that on current form the six Education For All objectives will not be achieved by 2015. Malnutrition still affects 175 million infants each year. The adult literacy objective is much neglected. If we continue at the same pace we are going at right now, there will still be 56 million school-age children out of school in 2015. In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are close to 12 million girls who might never go to school. On top of that, the shortage of adequately trained teachers means that even if we get these children into school, they may not get the basic education they should. For example, according to an analysis of a survey we conducted in 21 Sub-Saharan African countries, the probability of young adults remaining illiterate after five years at school is 40%. With results like that, I would say that the future outlook is moderate at best.

How do you explain this situation?

The provision of aid has been disappointing despite it being a vital component in the Education For All pact. Numerous countries, including those in the G8, are not carrying their fair share of the aid burden. You have to multiply by six the amount of aid currently provided in order to have enough to finance the deficit which amounts to US$1.6 billion. At a global scale such a figure is completely manageable. Another problem is that the financial support does not always reach those who need it most. A number of countries which have been affected by internal conflicts do not receive sufficient aid to help them in their reconstruction. It is true that international aid cannot replace efficient national policies, but it can contribute to removing certain obstacles to access education, caused either by poverty or gender-based discrimination, which often affect the most vulnerable groups in society.

What are the main obstacles to universal access to education?

Poverty is the first reason. There are 1,400 million people who live on less than US$1.25 a day. In many households in the Third World, the cost of education is in direct competition with other costs such as healthcare and food. The fact that many parents are not able to come up with the costs of schooling is one of the main reasons why their children do not attend school. Approximately 166 million children between the ages of five and 14 are required to work to supplement family income. The place where they live is also a factor. Children who live in shanty towns, extremely rural areas or areas affected by conflict are generally excluded from education. Likewise, children with disabilities or who are affected by HIV/AIDS have limited opportunities for schooling.

You refer to progress being made. How would you describe this?

Big steps have been made in the area of primary education. The number of children out of school has fallen by 33 million since 1999. South and West Asia have more than halved the number of children out of school at primary school age. Such positive developments have brought about advances in the area of gender parity. The number of girls who are out of school is dropping steadily too, and female adult literacy is rising faster than that of males. On the ground, this progress has been made possible by the construction of new schools, the supply of properly trained teachers, and the elimination of school fees, as well as the free supply of school uniforms, books and writing materials.

What should be the next priorities?

We are at the crossroads of destiny. The economic and food crises at hand are exerting huge pressure on both national and household budgets, and this makes the financing of education all the more vulnerable to cuts. Either we continue to pretend that nothing can undo the progress made in the last ten years, or we make use of these crises to build more sustainable systems. It is not possible to have development without education. We have to act fast. Innovative financing mechanisms have to be put in place to cover the current deficit. We also have to build inclusive education systems. That is the responsibility of the whole international community.

This interview was first published in the Fenêtre sur cours magazine (29 March 2010), and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Syndicat National Unitaire des instituteurs, professeurs des écoles et PEGC(SNUipp). This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 34, June 2010.