Over the past century, three approaches have been advocated to escape the consequences of widespread poverty, rapid population growth, environmental problems, and social injustices. The bigger pie approach says: use technology to produce more and alleviate shortages. The fewer forks approach says: make contraception and reproductive health care available to eliminate unwanted fertility and slow population growth. The better manners approach says: eliminate violence and corruption; improve trade, the operation of markets, and government provision of public goods; reduce the unwanted aftereffects of consumption, such as environmental damage; and achieve greater social and political equity between young and old, male and female, rich and poor (Cohen, 1995).
Providing all the world´s children with a high-quality primary and secondary education, whether through formal schooling or by alternative means, could, in principle, support all three of these approaches. Education provides economic benefits (see "Why Quality Matters in Education" on page 15 of this issue), builds strong societies and polities, and improves health. It is also a widely accepted humanitarian obligation and an internationally mandated human right.
The good news is that over the past century, access to education has increased enormously, illiteracy has fallen dramatically, and a higher proportion of people are completing primary, secondary, or tertiary education than ever before. But huge problems remain. About 115 million children of primary school age are not currently enrolled in school. Most are illiterate and live in absolute poverty; the majority are female. Some 264 million children of secondary school age are not currently enrolled. Large educational disparities exist within and between countries. The quality of schooling is often very low. Moreover, demographic projections suggest that developing countries will have 80 million more children of primary and secondary school age (typically 6—17 years old) by 2025 than now—an increase of 6 percent to 1.35 billion.
In 1990, the global community pledged at the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand, to achieve universal primary education (UPE) and greatly reduce illiteracy by 2000. In 2000, when these goals had not been met, it repeated the pledge, this time at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, with a target date of 2015. The UN Millennium Development Conference in 2000 also adopted UPE by 2015 as one of its goals, along with the elimination of gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2015. But even the modest UPE goal now looks unlikely to be achieved by 2015 at the current rate of progress. An estimated 335 million school-age children will be missing primary or secondary school in 2015; of these, an estimated 118 million will be absent from primary school. About one in five of these children will never enroll in or attend school.
Given this series of missed targets, what is feasible? Estimates are that UPE can be achieved by 2015 if the global community invests another $6 billion to $35 billion per year, on top of the approximately $82 billion developing countries already spend each year on primary education. This article argues that this sum is not only affordable but essential. It also argues that the UPE goal is not ambitious enough: the world should aim for, and can achieve, high-quality, universal secondary education, possibly by 2015 but certainly by the middle of the 21st century. The price tag for achieving this goal might be an additional $27 billion to $34 billion per year starting now, on top of the approximately $93 billion developing countries already spend each year on secondary education. However, the obstacles are not just financial. Leaders need to devise and implement policies that will make educating children unquestionably worthwhile, in the eyes of parents and everyone else.
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