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Jomtien, 20 Years Later: Global Education for All Partners Must Renew Commitment to Learning

Elizabeth King's picture

Twenty years ago when I was a relatively new economist at the World Bank, I was part of the Bank’s delegation to Jomtien, Thailand, where the heads of several multilateral development agencies, bilateral aid agencies, and leaders of 155 developing countries came together to declare their commitment to universal primary education.

I remember that the mood was upbeat—and not only because the venue was set along Thailand's sunny coast. There was a strong shared feeling that it was time to recommit to education as a basic human right, as highlighted by James Grant, the Executive Director of UNICEF at the time, and as a powerful instrument for reducing poverty and promoting development, as outlined by Barber Conable, World Bank President at the time. 

I am in Jomtien again this week, with senior representatives of development agencies and high level officials of some developing countries, to "call for a scaling up of efforts—at the national, regional and global levels—to achieve the [Education for All] goals" at the High Level Group Meeting on Education For All (EFA). Some things are the same, such as the warm hospitality of the Thai government (as the Kingdom of Thailand hosted the event), its royalty and its people. Some things are different. Pattaya, where Jomtien is, has many more high-rises and the streets are more crowded.

UNESCO is leading the conference,  and except for Irina Bokova, UNESCO's Director-General, the highest officials of the development agencies are mostly absent. Only one-third as many countries are represented. It is a more modest affair than the first Jomtien conference, reflecting perhaps what I’ve heard from some development quarters: that education is now less important than it used to be in the development agenda. Is the appropriate word "urgent" rather than "important?" Is education now a less urgent issue in development? I certainly think that the answer to the question is a resounding "no."

But are we the victim of our own success? Where education-for-all has been reduced to schooling-for-all, success has been measured by the number of school-age students enrolled in school as a proportion of the total number of children of that age, or even as the number of students who complete primary school.  By these indicators alone, many developing countries have declared success in their progress towards reaching the EFA goals. Indeed, even in low-income countries, the net enrollment rate at the primary level has increased from an average of less than 60% in 1990 to over 80% by 2008, and the completion rate, from 44% in 1990 to 63% by 2008. Over the past 20 years, these are what we have been measuring, and our ability to measure these numbers has improved.

But there is a real crisis in education. And it has to do with learning gains lagging far behind the rise in enrollment rates. Twenty years later, the first goal of the 1990 Jomtien World Declaration on Education For All is still relevant and we are far from claiming victory:

Every person - child, youth and adult - shall be able to benefit from educational opportunities designed to meet their basic learning needs.

These needs comprise both essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy, and problem solving) and the basic learning content (such as knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes) required by human beings to be able to survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions, and to continue learning. The scope of basic learning needs and how they should be met varies with individual countries and cultures, and inevitably, changes with the passage of time.

These learning goals have not been achieved. Educators, parents and civil society, employers and national leaders are increasingly aware of this. Because of failing public schools, even in poorer neighborhoods parents are moving their children to low-cost private schools they can barely afford. School administrators at secondary schools and tertiary institutions are deploring the level of preparedness of students who complete the primary level. At lunch today in Jomtien, I sat across from an education minister who had been a former professor of the top medical university in his country; he said that entering students could barely construct a grammatically correct sentence. I have heard a similar complaint in too many other countries, including my own country, the Philippines. National, regional and international test results attest to this (more at recent blog on PISA results).

Last September, at the Millenium Development Goal Summit at the United Nations, we worried about not meeting the goal of universal primary education, of leaving millions more children out of school, by 2015. At some point, we will have to acknowledge that universal primary education is not only about getting children to school and that whether or not children learn is no different from achieving education for all.

The premise of this week’s conference is the same as 20 years ago. We uphold "that education is a fundamental right for all people, women and men, of all ages, throughout our world" and "that education can help ensure a safer, healthier, more prosperous and environmentally sound world, while simultaneously contributing to social, economic, and cultural progress, tolerance, and international cooperation."

How did we come to dissociate going-to-school from learning-in-school? Perhaps by looking back to the first Jomtien conference, we can rediscover that the Education for All agenda is really about learning for all. As they say in the Phillipines: a person who does not look back to where he/she started will not reach his/her destination ("ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi mararating ang paroroonan"). Let's not forget what brought us together in 1990 as we look to the future.


Brookings takes up the call to address the global learning gap, with a great piece this week on "Ensuring Education Leads to Learning: The Task Ahead for the Education for All Goals in the Developing World" Check it out here: EduTech's Mike Trucano also echoes the centrality of learning and explores the potential that educational technology holds for the EFA goals in his latest post:

Submitted by MANTE Alain on
Bonjour et merci, 3 choses importantes ont émergé depuis Jomtien 1990, selon ma propre expérience (22 années d’expertise en systèmes éducatifs africains): 1. l’absolue nécessité de former correctement les enseignants si on veut atteindre l’la scolarisation universelle. De la qualité de l’offre dépend non seulement le recrutement mais surtout l’achèvement de la scolarité primaire. Il y a encore beaucoup trop de déperditions. 2. L’implication de la société civile dans les secteurs éducatifs, encore trop timide et qui peut avec son poids participer et faire pression pour une éducation de qualité. 3. L’absolue nécessité d’outil d’information (bases de données et indicateurs pertinents) pour gestion à court terme et planification pilotage, à moyen terme centrale et décentralisée. Bon courage, je reste à votre disposition. Hello and thank you, 3 important things emerged since Jomtien 1990, according to my own experiment (22 years of expertise in African education systems): 1. absolute need for training the teachers correctly if one wants to reach universal schooling. Quality of the offer depends not only recruitment but especially completion on the primary schooling. There are still far too many losses. 2. The implication of the civil society in the educational sectors, still too timid and which can with its weight take part and make pressure for an education of quality. 3. Absolute need for tool of information (data bases and relevant indicators) for management short-term and planning piloting, medium-term power station and decentralized. Good courage, I remain at your disposal.

Thank you for your thoughts on the topic. One cannot overstate the critical importance of teachers in improving learning outcomes in any education system--their competence, motivation, and dedication. For this reason, it's important to attract the best graduates into teaching, and to give teachers the utmost professional support they need in the classroom. At the same time, the education system must be clear about the level of performance expected from teachers and about how they will be assessed.

Submitted by Lennart Swahn on
If we are serious about achieving a "Learning for all" we must apply a completely different education system, where the role of the teacher is very different from what we have now. The "critical importance" of teachers is only referring to an education system that has been failing for the past 25 years, because it is outdated, inefficient and totally out of synch with modern living and working. We have now overwhelming evidence that the basic knowledge learning areas - Communication, Calculation, Sciences and Presentation - can be learnt much better, faster and more thoroughly by all students with the use of modern interactive ICT programs, but it requires that it is set in a new school organization. The critical importance of teachers for "Learning for All" is completely overstated and what is more serious, it gives the impression that we can solve the education problem by "getting more, better and different teachers" That we have tried without any success the past 25 years. With modern ICT we can create a new basic education system -or a Learning System - that is ten times (+1000%) more efficient at a cost that is half of (-50%) what the present failing system costs. I think you have a copy of my "Basic Education 2012" where I show the only way to improve Education. Otherwise mail me and I send you one.

Submitted by bhoomi mundboth on
In my country a lot is being done to enhance education for all. New strategies to improve schools and make learning more effective. Indeed teachers are provided with all sorts of training but unfortunately. we are most of the time taught how to teach, develop ways of teaching to our students only the education authorities or ministry of education forget to provides us with workshop where we can innovate our ways of further renewing us because we are constantly facing new generations of adolescents in otherwords we need novel strategies to lecture and deliver our goods. We are not even aware of our education act in spite of several years of teaching. It'sonly by accident that i came to know of Jomtien Declaration and i feel ackward (not to say ashamed ) as an educator.I believe we educators need to learn about our educational system as a module during our educational training. However I am obviously very happy to have come across this page

Submitted by Anonymous on
Get Involved in global education initiatives. 2011 ECOSOC High Level Segment Open Call for Oral and Written Statements The NGO Branch of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs is pleased to announce an open call for oral and written statements for the 2011 ECOSOC High Level Segment (HLS) for NGOs in ECOSOC consultative status. The HLS will include sessions on the Annual Ministerial Review (AMR). The theme for the AMR segment this year will focus on 'Implementing the internationally agreed goals and commitments in regard to education'. The HLS will be held on 4-7 July 2011 at Les Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland

This is the first time that I've ever read one of the Jomtien World Declaration goals, this statement is amazing. Will we ever be able to meet this goal globally or is it just wishful thinking?

Submitted by CICED on
An unbased assessment of learning outcomes is a cornerstone of tte education system in any country worlwide. This fact is evidenced by the growing number of international monitoring programs which rise to the increasing need in developing new tools to assess learning achievements by educators. By providing objective feedback to teachers and employees of educational administration, and providing a significant influence on the development of education quality, quality assessment is a necessary part of the educational process. Seeking to cover this gap, a group of Russian experts developed SAM tool which involves the mechanism for quality monitoring of learning contents. SAM web page:

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