The Middle East’s two most populous countries present very different pictures when it comes to education, a recent UNICEF report says.

The report praises Egypt’s educational record but expresses great concern about Pakistan’s poor performance. Covering the world’s nine most populous countries, which account for half of the world’s population, the report was presented to a UN-sponsored international education conference in New Delhi on 16 December.

The real rate of children enrolled in Egypt’s schools may be lower than the official 91 per cent, but the estimated figure of 70 per cent is still commendable, the report says. Also, Egypt has the largest number of children in education for more than four years of all the countries surveyed. In contrast, Pakistan lags far behind the other countries with an enrolment rate of 29 per cent of children, half of whom leave school before the fourth year. The lack of education for girls, a problem common to all nine countries, is particularly marked in Pakistan, where less than 20 per cent attend primary school, the report says.

It explains Pakistan’s poor record as stemming from the diversion of funds from social to military spending, political upheaval and moves to cut what is perceived as Western influence in education. Radical policy changes are urged to safeguard Pakistan’s long-term economic future, the report says. ‘To present the choice as now or never may over-dramatise it, but not by much,’ the main conference document said.