One in four young people in developing countries unable to read, says UN

An estimated 250 million children are not learning basic reading and maths skills, even though half of them have spent at least four years in school.

This “global learning crisis” costs developing countries billions of dollars a year in wasted education funding. Ten countries – India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – account for almost three-quarters of the world’s illiterate adults. Globally, almost two-thirds of illiterate adults are women, a figure that has remained almost static since 1990.

However, rich countries’ education systems are also failing minorities. In New Zealand, almost all rich students achieve minimum standards in grades four and eight, while only two-thirds of poor students do. More than 10% of grade eight students in Norway and England performed below minimum learning levels in mathematics in 2011.

The UN report says governments must rethink their teaching policies and redouble efforts to ensure marginalised and disadvantaged learners benefit. Governments must train teachers to support the weakest learners, as well as provide incentives to attract and retain the best instructors, it says. Many developing countries have rapidly increased their teacher numbers by hiring people without training. This may help get more children into school but it puts education quality in jeopardy.

The 2000 World Education Forum summit in Dakar, Senegal, agreed six global goals to meet the learning needs of all children, young people and adults by 2015. However, according to the UNESCO report, no country is projected to reach all the goals – which cover early childhood care, primary and secondary schooling, adult literacy, gender equality and educational quality – by the deadline.

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Qur'anic schoolgirls in Kano city. Nigeria is among 10 countries that account for almost three-quarters of the world's illiterate adults. Photograph: Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

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