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As you walk from classroom to classroom at Tibba Khara school on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan’s second-biggest city, the children seem to disappear. Pandemonium prevails in the first classroom, packed with five- and six-year-olds in their first year of school. But pass through the next few rooms, with progressively older classes, and both the number of pupils and the volume level steadily diminish. By the time you reach the class of ten- and 11-year-olds, there are just a handful of pupils left, silently studying.
If you want to find an uneducated child in today’s world, argues Lant Pritchett, an economist at Harvard University, “you can find them in school”.
The extent of the failure is immense. According to a survey of three east African countries (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) published in 2014, three-quarters of pupils in the third year of primary school could not read a sentence such as: “The name of the dog is Puppy.” In rural India almost the same share could not subtract 17 from 46, or perform similar calculations with two-digit numbers. Research by the Centre for Global Development (CGD), a think-tank, suggests that in half of the developing countries for which they have data, less than 50% of women who left school after the age of 11 can read a sentence. UNESCO, the United Nations body responsible for education and science, estimates that six out of ten children worldwide (a total of more than 600m) do not meet a minimum standard of proficiency in reading and maths. The vast majority of these children are in school.