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Thursday, 27 April, 2000, 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK
Blair too busy for education forum
ecole de la rue
Under-resourced: Street school in Senegal
One of the central complaints of UK charities campaigning for better global education is that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is not at the World Education Forum in Dakar.

He famously made education the top priority for his own government, and has said that "education is the most important weapon we have" in tackling poverty across the world.

tony blair with infants
Tony Blair: Committed - in his absence
The charities feel that his presence would have signalled a real commitment on the UK's part to achieving an improvement in education for all children.

A spokesman for the prime minister's office said Mr Blair was not attending because of his active role in the local elections campaign at home and because of other priorities, such as Northern Ireland.

"But he is taking a very keen interest in this and met a number of the non-governmental organisations involved recently in Downing Street."

Agenda commitment

Mr Blair has promised to "work personally" to put the global education targets onto the agenda for the G8 summit of industrialised nations in Japan in July.

The Number 10 spokesman said the agenda was a matter for the hosts, Japan, but negotiations were continuing.

"We are trying our best," he added.

The International Development Secretary, Clare Short - who has backed the campaign for universal primary education since taking office - is representing the UK at the forum.

'Talkfest' danger

She shares charities' concerns that in spite of the promises made at the last global education forum 10 years ago things have if anything got worse for many children.

In her speech to the forum on Thursday morning, Ms Short said: "It is vital that the framework for action from this forum makes clear that funding agencies will allocate significant additional resources to support primary and basic education, where governments are committed to this objective and have put in place the appropriate policies to deliver on it.

"Too much of development assistance still goes to support higher education - often educating the sons and daughters of the elite at the expense of the poorest. This needs to change," she said.

She said that whatever was agreed, there had to be better gathering of educational statistics so that the whole debate was better informed.

But her department's policy of targeting a significant chunk of the aid it gives for education on specific countries, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, does not go down well with the large number of campaigning organisations which have formed the Global Campaign for Education.


Oxfam GB, one of those organisations, says it would be churlish to complain when the UK has increased its education aid: it has committed 800m to reaching the international targets of universal primary education for all by 2015, up 300m since May 1997.

But Oxfam spokesman Matt Grainger said: "We are calling for a compact whereby any country that shows a commitment to educating all its kids should not fail for lack of money.

"There's a really dangerous potential for this forum to degenerate into just another international 'talkfest' like we had 10 years ago, where many promises were given and systematically broken.

We're looking at this as being a watershed. If you are going to do anything to solve the crisis, you have got to make a concrete plan and commit money."

The UK government also thinks a new organisation is needed to achieve primary education for all.

"We need a follow-up body with real clout, much more broadly representative, particularly of governments and civil society in the south, and with the capacity to drive forward this agenda internationally," says Clare Short's department.

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