Africa (Children's Literacy)

AIDS – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 9th November 2005.

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Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley 11:30 am, 9th November 2005

What steps he is taking to promote best practice in improving children's literacy in Africa.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

The education for all global monitoring report, published today, highlights the continuing problem of children learning to read and write in sub-Saharan Africa. The UK is helping African countries to strengthen basic education, particularly for women and girls. For example, in Zambia, where we support teaching children to read and write in their mother tongue before learning English, the programme has dramatically improved literacy rates.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley

There are two objectives in the children's literacy strategy—to ensure that low literacy levels are lifted and, as my right hon. Friend noted, to close the gender equality gap. One of the millennium development goals is to close that gap by 2015, so will he say what progress is being made in that direction?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I share my hon. Friend's concern about the need to close the gender equality gap and to get all the children in sub-Saharan Africa who are not attending primary school into classrooms. Fulfilling those objectives depends on the capacity of the Governments of developing countries to raise the finance, employ the teachers and build the schools. In particular relation to girls, the task is to address the other factors that prevent girls from getting to school. Something as practical as a lack of toilet facilities can make parents reluctant to send their daughters to school. Another factor could be the lack of clean water, because if water has to be fetched and carried from somewhere else, we know that that burden falls on girls and women. If girls have to fetch and carry water, they cannot go to school.

School fees present another obstacle that has to be overcome, as they prevent poor families from sending their children to school. If those poor families have to make a choice, they may choose to pay fees for a boy but not for a girl. Those are the problems that we must address if we are to help developing countries reach the 2015 target.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is the Secretary of State worried about the brain drain of teachers who leave Africa in favour of other countries? That will affect progress towards achieving children's literacy in Africa. What steps could be taken or incentives offered to encourage trained teachers to remain in their countries and help increase literacy across Africa?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the problem. As he knows, the real problem involves the factors that drive teachers and other skilled professionals out of developing countries, such as poor pay and working conditions, and the lack of opportunity for career and professional development. In the course of 2005, various commitments have been made to help developing countries improve pay and working conditions for teachers and provide more career and professional development, and the British Government have also increased aid to that end. Another obstacle is the lack of housing for teachers in rural areas: if there is no house to live in, is it any wonder that teachers are reluctant to go and work in a remote rural community? That is what we have to address, and our increased aid is supporting that effort.

For example, the new President of Burundi has just abolished school fees. On the first day, 500,000 children turned up for school, 300,000 of whom had not been to school before. Although there is still the same number of teachers in the schools there, we have given the country some financial assistance to help it to begin to address that enormous challenge.

Photo of Derek Wyatt Derek Wyatt Labour, Sittingbourne and Sheppey

Will the Secretary of State consider the BBC World Service, the Open University and the British Council coming together to create a web-based system to help literacy in Africa? Is there something we can do to enable that?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I welcome all steps and measures that those interested in the future of Africa's development are willing to take. In order to get access to the web, of course, people need a computer and electricity. We therefore need to recognise the order in which things have to change if students in Africa are to be able to take advantage of proposals such as the one that my hon. Friend suggests. When I was in Rwanda a week ago yesterday, I visited a school that has got some computers in use and hopes to get access next year to the internet for the first time in its students' lives. A very small number of children have access currently. Let us hope that we can see more taking advantage of it in the years to come.