Two years of civil war wiped out 15 years of education progress in Syria

15 years ago, we promised every child enrollment in primary school today. We cannot break the same promise again.

Sylvia Montoya July 07, 2015
For the first time, we have the official numbers that show the devastating consequences of the civil war in Syria on education. When the conflict first erupted in 2011, nearly every child was enrolled in primary school across the country. Within two years, nearly two million children and young adolescents were out of school.

Enrolment rates have plummeted, leaving one in three children and more than two out of five adolescents excluded from education, according to the new data from UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). It took two years to erase all of the educational gains made in Syria since the start of the century; two years to ruin the future prospects of a generation.

Syria is not alone. More than 34 million children and adolescents are out of school in armed conflict zones around the world, while poverty blocks the path to an education for even more children in relatively stable countries. As a result, the global number of out-of-school children and adolescents has been slowly but steadily growing to reach a total of 124 million.

From Syria to Nigeria and Pakistan, we are seeing the limits of ‘business as usual’. Fifteen years ago, countries ignited a big bang in education by abolishing tuition fees, building more schools and reducing gender disparities. These large-scale policies helped millions of children, especially girls, enrol for the first time.

Today, we can no longer rely on the optimism of ‘build more schools and they shall come’. We can double the number of new classrooms and still not reach the girls forced to stay home, the children obliged to work and the millions displaced by conflict. The only way to break the exclusion is through targeted policies within countries that address the specific needs and circumstances of the most marginalised children.

The good news is that the world is about to embark on a new set of sustainable development goals, which will be adopted by the UN General Assembly in September. If all goes according to plan, governments will pledge to provide every child with not just a primary education but 12 years of free, quality primary and secondary schooling. The ambition driving this target marks a positive step forward, so long as the governments and the international communities are ready to invest the resources.

However, these policies will cost money, which is in short supply. Despite a small rise of six per cent in international aid to education, levels are still four per cent lower in present than in 2010, according to the EFA Global Monitoring Report. Without renewed commitments, assistance will continue to stagnate until 2017.

The resources needed, however, are vast. To provide the promised 12 years of quality primary and secondary education and a year of pre-primary education, an addition of $39 billion is needed every year until 2030. To fill this shortfall, countries must prioritise education in their budgets. Moreover, donor countries must increase their aid to education by minimum of six times.  However, at the moment, the latter are not prioritising education, the way that they should, as half of the donor countries reduced their aid to basic education between 2008-2010 and 2011-2013.

So, while welcoming the renewed verbal commitments to inclusive, equitable and quality education, we remain vigilant. This September, when the UN General Assembly adopts new global development goals, the international community will raise the expectations of children and their families around the world.

We cannot let this aspiration deflect attention from the most marginalised and vulnerable children. At least 24 million children who are now between the ages of six and 11 will never gain access to education, if current trends continue. Furthermore, girls are the first to be excluded.

Next week, the world’s largest donors and their partner countries will be gathering in Addis for the Third Financing for Development Conference. They must not be deluded. Fifteen years ago, we promised each and every child that they would be enrolled in primary school today. We cannot break that very same promise again.
Sylvia Montoya The author is the Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). She was the Director-General of Assessment and Evaluation of Education Quality at the Ministry of Education, Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is also a professor and researcher at the Catholic University of Argentina. She tweets as @EFAReport
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