Giving education a sporting chance

President Jacob Zuma says the World Cup must focus global attention on “education for all”. But will his summit in the last week of the tournament do that, asks Kevin Watkins, director of Unesco’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report.

Some of you are probably wondering why a United Nations official is writing about the football World Cup. So let me start by dispelling a few concerns. I’m not about to offer advice on tactical formations or the use of the offside trap – and my organisation observes strict neutrality in the controversy over the new ball designed for the tournament.

In fact, there are plenty of reasons for the UN to take an interest in football. When it comes to global reach, soccer has the credentials to make us green with envy. By its conclusion, the World Cup will have been watched by a cumulative audience of 26-billion people. If only the summit on world poverty planned for September generated a similar level of interest! And Fifa, the world football federation, has more members than the UN: 208 against just 192.

Celebrities promote 1Goal

But it’s not just the weight of membership that counts. In a world scarred by so much violence and conflict, football cuts across ethnic, religious and cultural divides – and it unites people across national borders. From the most affluent suburbs in Europe to the slums of Latin America and the poorest villages in Africa, people have been glued to TVs or huddled around radios following the progress of their team. People who haven’t thought about football for years – for four years to be precise – have been suddenly transformed into passionate enthusiasts.

The fact that the World Cup is being held for the first time in Africa makes it a special moment. This is a tremendous opportunity for South Africa to demonstrate the spirit, vibrancy and resolve that defines the region’s diverse peoples. But it is also an opportunity for the international community to leave a legacy that could transform the lives of a whole generation, empowering millions of children to escape the deadly pull of poverty, ill-health and illiteracy.

On July 11, the South African President, Jacob Zuma, will host a special education summit. The event will mark the culmination of the 1 Goal campaign – a partnership between Fifa and civil society organisations across the world. The aim of the campaign: to get the 72-million kids of primary-school age currently denied an education into decent quality schooling by 2015.

One-off chance
The World Cup summit is a one-off chance to galvanise the political leadership and the financial resources needed to make it happen.

Why the focus on education? As Nelson Mandela once put it, ‘Education is the great engine of personal development.” It equips people with the skills they need to work their way out of poverty, to broaden their choices, and to participate in political processes that affect their lives. And in our increasingly knowledge-based global economy, education is the surest route to higher economic growth, decent jobs and future prosperity. When girls complete a primary education it adds about 10% to the earnings, improving living standards and strengthening economic growth.

Unfortunately, the opposite also holds true. The crisis in education — and 72-million children out of school adds up to a crisis — has deep social, economic and human costs. Consider the links between maternal education and child survival. Children in Africa born to mothers with a secondary education are half as likely to die before the age of five. Put differently, universal secondary education in Africa would avert around 1,8-million deaths a year — a stark illustration of the fact that gender inequalities in schooling cost lives.

The 1 Goal campaign has helped to focus attention on one of the greatest social injustices of our generation. Football is played on a level playing field. Both teams operate to the same rules.

Matches are won or lost through the skill of the players, the tactics of the coaches, and sometimes moments of chance. Yet millions of children, deprived of a level playing field, face a constant uphill struggle: they are denied the chance of an education because of their parents’ poverty, because they are female, or because of their ethnicity.

Shackled talents
Nobody would think it fair if a football match kicked off with one team’s forwards having their feet tied together. Yet poverty and gender inequalities in education shackle the talents of Africa’s children. That is why Unesco has been pressing all governments to focus their efforts on reaching their most marginalised children.

Perhaps it’s because you don’t see kids dying for want of schooling that political leaders have failed to treat the education crisis with the urgency it merits. Failing to educate young girls, the majority of those out of school, is not just immoral and a violation of their human rights – it’s also just plain stupid. Denying girls an education is bad for economic growth, bad for the health of the country, and bad for democracy. It’s like missing an open goal in the World Cup final.

Achieving the 1 Goal ambition will not be easy. If we carry on as we are, the target of education for all by 2015 will be missed – there will still be 56-million out of school. At a time when rich countries are struggling to come to terms with fiscal deficits, more aid is vital. Estimates by our Global Monitoring Report suggest that another $11-billion will be needed annually.

Yet despite repeated pledges to do more donors have been cutting aid to education. If broken promises to the world’s children merit a caution, several G8 governments would be heading for a red card and an early bath.

The summit in South Africa provides an opportunity to chart a new course. True, the price tag might prompt some people to question whether the aims of the 1 Goal campaign are realistic. But how ‘realistic” is it to deny vulnerable girls and boys a passport out of poverty? And what sort of realism is it that leads governments to tolerate the inequalities in education opportunity that holding back economic growth, dividing societies, and fuelling global disparities? As the old saying goes, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

Education is not a game
On July 11 the final whistle will blow and the winning team will collect the World Cup. One set of supporters will be euphoric. The rest of will be left trying hard to remember that football is just a game, and that there will be another World Cup in four years.

Whichever team we are backing, all of us should be supporting the demand for an education summit that delivers a result. Education is not a game. And kids get only one chance to go to sch¬ool. Giving them that chance would really make this a World Cup to remember.

More than that, I hope above all that when we look back on this World Cup, we remember it as the one that helped make the breakthrough in education. Now that would be a goal worth scoring.

  • Kevin Watkins is the director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, published by Unesco.

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