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Encyclopedia > Universal Primary Education

The second United Nations Millennium Development Goal is to achieve Universal Primary Education, more specifically, to “ensure that by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling." Currently, there are more than 100 million children around the world of primary school age who are not in school. The majority of these children are in regions of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and within these countries, girls are at the greatest disadvantage in receiving access to education at the primary school age. Since the Millennium Development Goals were launched, there have been many successes. For example, China, Chile, Cuba, Singapore and Sri Lanka are all examples of developing countries that have successfully completed a campaign towards universal primary education. It is from these examples of success that the many struggling countries can learn; and gradually more and more countries will be added to the list of those who have successfully achieved the goal of universal primary education. A large elementary school in Magome, Japan. ... A large elementary school in Magome, Japan. ...


Access and Attendance

There are many factors that contribute to a child’s lack of access and attendance during primary education. Among them are location, climate, cost, gender, and family issues. School fees are a common factor prohibiting children from attending school. In schools with low resources, there is no choice but to require fees for matriculation, cost of books and uniforms. For families living in poverty, it is not reasonable to pay money to send their children to school when they are struggling to even feed them every day. Attendance is another crucial issue in achieving universal primary education, for even if a child has access to schooling, they will not reap the full benefits of education if they are not attending school on a regular basis. The Millennium Development Goals Task Force on Education suggests that in order to provide incentives for children to consistently attend school and take their education seriously, a government should improve their post-primary education option. For many parents in developing countries “the economic benefits of primary schooling alone are not high enough to offset the opportunity cost of attending.”

Effect of HIV/AIDS on school attendance

One emerging issue is the impact that HIV/AIDS has on a child’s education. Often, when a family member is struggling with the disease, the child must stay home from school on a regular basis in order to care for that family member or provide the labor that an infected family member is no longer able. Children also face the risk of being ostracized at schools because HIV/AIDS has such a stigma to it. When a child is orphaned by HIV/AIDS, they have to focus all their energy on survival and therefore, do not even have the option of attending school. Also, in countries where the rate of HIV/AIDS is extremely high, the supply of teachers is scarce as many have contracted HIV/AIDS or are caring for family members, neighbors and friends with the infection. The way that HIV/AIDS is affecting children’s access to quality education can be a vicious cycle because the infection is often what is keeping them from attending school; however, it is at school where much of the HIV/AIDS education is taking place.

The Issue of Access in Rural Areas

Possibly the greatest obstacle that all children have in access to primary education is the issue of geography. In an urban setting, there is most likely a school in close enough proximity to a child that they could walk if they had to. However, in rural areas, schools are not always accessible by foot. As a result, the rates of attendance in rural areas are always lower than in urban areas. According to the Education for Rural People Campaign run by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “seventy per cent of the world’s poor, of the 880 million of the world’s illiterate, of the 130 million children who are not in school” live in rural areas. In rural areas, the issues of access and quality of education are urgent and the approach to teaching must be modified from the urban approach in order to address the specific needs of the population.


Another inhibiting factor to school attendance is weather. If children are walking long distances to school on a daily basis, the rain, snow, draught and other climatic factors may keep children from attending school. In countries where there is a rainy season that lasts possibly months, this is extremely detrimental to a child’s education. For example, in a rural school outside of Granada, Nicaragua, attendance rates can drop to as low as 20% when it rains. Sometimes attendance rates are so low that the school simply closes early and sends all the children home. Consider that climate issues are not completely physical by nature but also have cultural implications.

Education and Gender

Access to education and gender equality go hand in hand. In 2005, UNICEF reported that for every 100 boys out of school, there are still 117 girls facing the same situation. UNICEF emphasizes the importance of commitment to education for girls because it has a “multiplier effect” in that statistically, girls with an education are more likely to marry later and have fewer children who are more likely to survive with better nourishment and education. In addition, educated girls are empowered with the skills to participate in decision-making on a political, social and economic level in their communities. In many villages, a school provides the basic amenities such as latrines, clean water, meals and health care that a child could not find elsewhere. It is essential that girls are provided with equal access to education and the basic services that come with it. Girls are often the first to be withdrawn from school if a family needs someone else to work, bring in an income, or care for a family member. The issue of universal primary education must be addressed with the consciousness that there is currently a disparity in gender and education. Not only is this a moral issue but it has major public health implications on entire communities on which these disparities exist.


A child can have access to school and attend it on a regular basis but still there may be inadequacies in the quality of their education. There are many institutional problems in schools that prevent children from actually learning. One problem is overcrowding. Classroom sizes can be as large as 60 students. In this situation, it is not easy for children to receive the individual attention that they need to benefit from their education. Inadequately trained and underpaid teachers can also pose an obstacle to ensuring quality education in developing countries. When there is a shortage of teachers, schools have to hire untrained teachers in order that the children can have any teacher at all. Another barrier to quality in education is a lack of supplies and resources. Students do not always have the books, paper, pencils and all of the basic materials that one needs to learn in an effective manner.

How does Education Relate to Global Health

Education is a crucial factor in ending global poverty. With education, employment opportunities are broadened, income levels are increased and maternal and child health is improved. In areas where access, attendance and quality of education have seen improvements, there has also been a slow in the spread of HIV/AIDS and an increase in the healthiness of the community in general. In fact, children of educated mothers are 50% more likely to live past the age of five. Not only does education improve individual and familial health, but it also improves the health of a community. In countries with solid education systems in place, there are lower crime rates, greater economic growth and improved social services.

School Feeding Programs

“There are approximately 300 million chronically hungry children in the world. One hundred million of them do not attend school, and two thirds of those not attending school are girls. World Food Programme's school feeding formula is simple: food attracts hungry children to school. An education broadens their options, helping to lift them out of poverty.” –World Food Programme

One successful method to ensuring that children attend school on a regular basis is through school feeding programs. Many different organizations fund school feeding programs, among them the World Food Programme and the World Bank. The idea of a school feeding program is that children are provided with meals at school with the expectation that they will attend school regularly. School feeding programs have proven a huge success because not only do the attendance rates increase, but in areas where food is scarce and malnutrition is extensive, the food that children are receiving at school can prove to be a critical source of nutrition. School meals have led to improved concentration and performance of children in school. Another aspect of school feeding programs is take home rations. When economic reasons, the need to care for the elderly or a family member suffering from HIV, or cultural beliefs keep a parent from sending their child (especially a female child) to school, these take home rations provide incentives to sending their children to school rather than to work.

Current Efforts


Global Campaign for Education

This organization promotes education as a basic human right. It motivates people and groups to put public pressure on governments and the international community in order to assure that all children are provided with free, compulsory public education. It brings together major NGOs and Teachers Unions in over 150 countries to work in solidarity towards their vision of universal primary education.

United Nations Children’s Fund

UNICEF believes that in treating education as a basic human right, it will address the basic inequalities in our society, especially gender inequalities. It focuses on the most disadvantaged children through a range of innovative programs and initiatives. In working with local, national and international partners, UNICEF’s work is contributing to the realization of the 2nd millennium development goal by 2015.

Oxfam International

This organization is a confederation of 12 organizations that are dedicated to reducing poverty and eliminating injustices in the world. Oxfam works on a grassroots level in countries around the world to ensure that all people have access to the basic human rights, including education.

Save the Children

This organization advocates education as a way for individuals to escape poverty. They are running a campaign entitled “Rewrite the Future” to encouraging American citizens, in positions of power and wealth, to take action against the injustices in education systems around the world. Save the Children also operates education programs in 30 countries all over the world.

Peace Corps

This United States government organization has volunteers on the ground in 75 countries. Many of the volunteers are working as teachers in rural areas or working to promote and improve access to education in the areas in which they are stationed.

United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

UNESCO works to improve education through projects, advice, capacity-building and networking. UNESCO’s Education for All Campaign by 2015 is the driving force in UNESCO’s work in the field of education at the moment.

World Bank

This organization provides financial and technical assistance to developing countries. Loans and grants from the World Bank provide much of the funding for educational projects around the world, including but not limited to school feeding programs.

World Food Programme

This organization provides food relief in areas that need it most and is one of the major funders of school feeding programs.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

This organization runs a campaign entitled Education for Rural People in which they work to ensure education for rural people as the key to reduction of poverty, food security and sustainable development.

Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)

This organization is a hub for organizations committed to ending vitamin and mineral deficiencies. GAIN works with other international organizations to implement school feeding programs around the world.

In the United States

Teach for America

The mission of Teach for America is to address the inadequacies in the United States education system by placing highly qualified college graduates into under resourced schools for a two year period in an attempt transform these leaders into lifelong advocates of education reform in the United States.

Our Education

This is a campaign to empower young people in the United States to stand up and speak out against the inadequacies in the United States education system and to demand change through political activism.

Breakthrough Collaborative

This organization empowers high potential middle school students from lower income communities to excel in school and at the same time inspires motivated high school and college students to pursue careers in education. It is a six week summer enrichment program where “students teach students” run in more than 30 sites all over the United States.




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