Let’s say we are both girls born on farms in remote villages at the foothills of mountains, but you were born at the foothills of the Himalayas and I, somewhere at the foothills of the Swiss Alps. You are the first of five children and I have only one younger sister. What do you suppose our lives growing up would be like?
I have access to a road that leads me to school every day and to hospitals when I need it. I have electricity so that I can do my homework in the evenings and my mother can cook using a clean stove. We have heat. I even have telecommunication services for when I want to talk to my uncle who lives in Nova Friburgo, Brazil. And my bathroom is indoors because it separates us from our waste.
When it comes to primary education, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Enrollment has jumped across the world, and more children are in school than ever before. In the last decade, the number of out-of-school children has fallen by half, from 102 million in 2000 to 57 million in 2011.
But is showing up to school enough?
According to UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report, almost one quarter of the youth in the developing world cannot read a sentence. In countries with large youth populations, this can leave behind a crippling ‘legacy of illiteracy’. Despite almost universal primary enrollment in India – 97 percent – half of second grade students cannot read a full sentence, and almost a quarter cannot even recognize letters.
Reading is a foundational skill. Children who do not learn to read in the primary grades are less likely to benefit from further schooling. Poor readers struggle to develop writing skills and absorb content in other areas. More worryingly, learning gaps hit disadvantaged populations the hardest, limiting their economic opportunities. In Bangladesh, only one in three of the poorest quartile is literate, compared to almost nine out of ten in the richest.
"1700 people Sir!” Satya said. “Everybody is fine.” Satya had just shown me the equipment of the multi-purpose cyclone shelter in Ganjam District, where Cyclone Phailin made landfall. The equipment had looked exactly the same as what I had been shown during the briefing the day before at the Odisha Disaster Management Agency in Bubaneshwar.
That had surprised me because the shelter where we were was almost ten years old, being one of the first ones to be built after the super cyclone of 1999. “I am the Secretary of the Shelter Management Committee Sir; I am in charge of maintenance.” Satya had said when I asked him how come everything looked in such good shape. “I have done this for seven years.” He added proudly. I was amazed. It is not often that a field visit highlights a facility that is close to ten years old. Even new facilities rarely look this good…
It was not my first visit to a Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV). Every time I go to one, I come out inspired. What a great program this is: many thousands of girls who have missed the education boat are being brought back into the school system all over India! To me, it is the best part of Sarva Siksha Abiyan (SSA), the Government of India’s very successful Education for All Program.
That day in January, we were in Jehanabad in Bihar. We were sitting in the court yard of the KGBV school watching the karate demonstration the students put up for us. The girls learn karate for self-esteem and self-defense; it is a great thing. During the demo, one of the other girls came up to us. “I am Kusum”, she said, “I am in class 7.” Her English was perfect, so I complimented her on that. Kusum went back and we continued to watch the karate. When the program was over, Kusum came back to the front, with a determined look on her face. “Next year, I will go to class 8” she said. “I am happy you came to visit my school.”