A crisis in global education is costing governments $129bn a year, while 10 percent of spending on primary learning is lost on poor quality education that is failing children, a new report by UNESCO has said.
The report, Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all, released on Wednesday, says that one in four young children in poor countries are unable to read and that 5.2 million teachers need to be recruited by 2015.
It warns that a lack of trained teachers could see this learning crisis last for several generations.
About 175 million young people in poor countries – equivalent to around one quarter of the youth population – cannot read all or part of a sentence.
Based on current trends, the report projects that it will take until 2072 for all the poorest young women in developing countries to be literate; and possibly until the next century for all girls from the poorest families in sub-Saharan Africa to finish lower secondary school.
The news comes a year before the deadline for the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of achieving universally effective primary education in a bid to end the education gap that widens the rift between rich and poor.
In a third of countries analysed by the report, less than three-quarters of existing primary school teachers are trained to national standards.
In many sub-Saharan African countries only one in five of the poorest children reach the end of primary school having learnt the basics in reading and mathematics, the report says. The region has just 2.2 teachers per hundred pupils, the lowest in the world, according to the 2011 Global Education Digest.
In West Africa, where few children are learning the basics, teachers on temporary contracts with low pay and little formal training make up more than half of the teaching force.
"Teachers have the future of this generation in their hands," said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. "We need 5.2 million teachers to be recruited by 2015, and we need to work harder to support them in providing children with their right to a universal, free and quality education.
"We must also make sure that there is an explicit commitment to equity in new global education goals set after 2015, with indicators tracking the progress of the marginalised so that no one is left behind."
Children not learning
Beyond Africa, Pakistan is one of the worst countries for learning, with less than half of children picking up basic reading and maths skills.
Again, lack of qualified teachers is a major problem, but barriers created by minority languages also play a role.
The cost of 250 million children around the world not learning the basics translates into a loss of an estimated $129bn, the report says.
In total, 37 countries are losing at least half the amount they spend on primary education because children are not learning.
Even in high-income countries, education systems are failing significant minorities. In New Zealand, while almost all students from rich households achieved minimum standards in grades 4 and 8, only two-thirds of poor students achieved similar results.
Immigrants in rich countries are also left behind: in France, for example, fewer than 60 per cent of immigrants have reached the minimum benchmark in reading.
Pauline Rose, the director of the EFA Global Monitoring Report, said: "What's the point in an education if children emerge after years in school without the skills they need? The huge numbers of illiterate children and young people mean it is crucial that equality in access and learning be placed at the heart of future education goals.
"New goals after 2015 must make sure every child is not only in school, but learning what they need to learn.”