Everyone should have the same opportunities in life. No one should be discriminated against because of social background, gender, religion, or age. But the real world seldom lives up to those ideals.
The idea of equality has brought immense change across the world within a few centuries, but educational equality remains an issue for many countries. UNESCO wants to change this with its Education for All project.
In total, 164 participating countries have agreed to a number of goals for UNESCO's project. They aim to make basic education free and available to all children, cut the rate of adult illiteracy in half, and guarantee equal treatment of men and women.
Millions of children can't attend school
According to Mark Richmond, who directs UNESCO’s Division of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, the first step in solving the education problem is to raise people's expectations.
"Everyone has the right to an education. The more we demand it, the more governments will take notice and include it in their laws, the more people will expect it," he said.
Germany, like most industrialized countries, requires children to attend school. Pauline Rose, director of the UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report, knows the numbers. "Even though children in more and more countries have the opportunity to go to school, there are still 67 million children that don't," she said.
Corruption and poverty often hinder educational opportunities in poorer countries. Poor families simply do not have the financial means to pay for school tuition, books, or school uniforms.
Equal education problematic in Germany
Germany holds one of the lowest spots among industrialized countries when it comes to providing children with equal education opportunities.
Children in Germany must attend a school through the ninth grade. Those who go on for additional years of school and complete the Abitur exam are qualified for higher education. From this point of view, every child in Germany has the chance to pursue an education.
But critics say that the German school system is unjust. Most states in Germany decide when children are in the 4th grade whether or not they will pursue the academic track that leads to university. Critics say this is too early.
Children from homes where both parents have university degrees already have an academic advantage. Research studies have shown that teachers intuitively expect a middle-class child to be more academically successful than a working-class child.
Parents' education levels correlate with whether Germans go on to college
Children from lower class families fall behind, especially those whose families have immigrated to Germany. Poorer families in Germany can't afford tutoring or private schools.
Access to education does exist; however, schools lack the means to help less socially advantaged students learn how to take advantage of the opportunity.
Katja Urbatsch founded the "Arbeiterkind.de" club to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Club members encourage children to pursue a higher education even if their family members hadn't had that opporunity.
Urbatsch understands the discrepancy between public perception of education and reality. "Many think that if you took the Abitur [school-leaving examination], then you go to university. But statistics show that's not always the case," she said.
In Germany, only 50 percent of children with the Abitur go on to study if they come from families where university education was not the norm. "We support these children throughout their university studies until they have their degree," added Urbatsch.
Despite improvements, other discriminatory practices have convinced many people that access to an education is an unattainable illusion. Word choice, grammar, and accent, for example, can sometimes reveal a person's social background and, in some cases, interviewers are inclined to discriminate against candidates who speak a certain way or use a dialect.
Education benefits the economy
Governments have ample reasons to invest in education
When governments invest in education, economic interests usually play a role in addition to humanitarian motivations. Business and politics benefit from supporting talented students who could later fill top positions.
Countries which lack natural resources - like the United Arab Emirates - tend to invest more in education. And those which have a shortage of scientists and engineers offer scholarships and grants in the relevant subject areas.
Universities that must compete for students improve their services or cut tuition. The state supports these education measures in order to be able to fill future positions in specific fields. Businesses even invest more often in training when they lack skilled laborers, such as in Germany or the US.
Mark Richmont thinks UNESCO will be working to solve inequality in education for many years. "Even in highly developed countries, there are still segments of the population that don't reach the same level of education as the rest," he said. "It will remain an eternal struggle."
Author: Gaby Reucher / kms
Editor: Kate Bowen