Jummai Nkwo will not let her daughter Mary go to school. "I'd like her to go, but it's just too expensive and I need her. I'm a widow. We have to work to keep everyone in the family fed. So she goes every day with me to the bush to cut wood and then we take it to sell in Abuja."
Mary, who is 12 but looks about seven, is plucking at the kitten embroidered on her grubby T-shirt as she listens. Would she like to go to school? Yes, she says shyly. She's seen two of her elder sisters go and she thinks it would be nice to learn things such as English. "I want to be able to take care of myself and my children," she tells me. But this modest desire makes her mother laugh, and after a while so do all the other women standing around the cooking pot as the evening porridge bubbles.
"Mary's job is to get the water," smiles one, and Mary is too embarrassed to say any more. Jummai didn't go to school, she says, and clearly she can't see the point. In any case, she removed Mary's sisters from the primary school, here on the outskirts of Nigeria's capital, when older men offered to marry them. They were just 14. Northern , where up to 50% of girls never see inside a school, is not a good place for childish dreams.
Mary's plight, and that of 72 million other children across the world who do not attend school, will take centre stage in New York tomorrow as the – targets set by the G8 in rosier times 10 years ago for radical reductions in global poverty by 2015.
The UN education body, , will tell the conference this week that 171 million people would be lifted out of poverty if students in poor countries could at least attain basic reading skills. Gordon Brown will make his return to the international stage with meetings at the summit to push the goal of education for all by 2015 – "an achievement that would surely rate among mankind's greatest," he is expected to declare. Brown has signed up to work with the Global Campaign for Education, a lobbying group of NGOs and UN agencies.
Much has happened since the MDGs were formulated in 2000, but little in terms of their achievement. Particularly disappointing is MDG 2, which set out to achieve universal child education. It seemed one of the more accessible goals, and since 2000 massive amounts of development aid have been spent on the issue by rich countries. Britain's stated policy is to fund education in the developing world because it is "the best route out of poverty". The UK spent £10m in 2008-09 on education in Nigeria alone.
But while the number of children out of education worldwide has fallen, from 105 million 10 years ago, there is still a long way to go. According to research by the , 48% of children in sub-Saharan Africa still do not complete primary education.
Nowhere is this failure more stark than in Nigeria. On paper the country is Africa's third richest because of its immense oil wealth – it is the sixth-largest producer in the world. Officially the country has 8.8 million children out of school, more than any other nation. But research by the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Education, seen by the Observer, indicates that the actual figure may be 19.2 million – nearly half of all Nigeria's primary-age children.
Where education is provided, there are stark indicators that the quality of it is inadequate. "English is the official language and all primary schoolchildren must learn it," says Abuja-based campaigner Wale Samuel. "But it's common to find that even teachers cannot converse in English."
Two years ago, the education commissioner of Nigeria's Kwara state revealed that nearly 20,000 of the state's teachers had been made to sit tests in English and maths designed for nine- and 10-year-olds, but only seven of the teachers could reach the minimum attainment level. An editorial in Nigeria's Guardian newspaper commented that the Kwara scandal was "a symptom of a decadent system, where favouritism, corruption, compromise, incompetence and the like hold sway in every facet of life".
Wale Samuel, who co-ordinates the efforts of many small Nigerian NGOs trying to increase access to education, says the key to the problem is "more financing and better use of it" – obvious things in a country that in recent history has rarely devoted more than 6% of its annual national budget to education, less than one-third of what South spends (most rich nations spend about 12%). Many Nigerians blame the fact that their middle class has no interest in a system that it does not use, with children from more affluent backgrounds educated privately or abroad.
Recently, Nigeria's union of university lecturers threatened to release the names of all government officials who sent their children out of the country for their schooling. Wale Samuel acknowledges this problem, and says the country's elite must develop a "passion" for education: "We have to impress policy-makers that the social fabric is knotted together by quality education – without it, you court disaster in Nigeria."
In Kaduna, a dusty state capital in Nigeria's largely Muslim north, I saw how the country's education system excludes the poor. Although Nigeria is committed to free primary education for all, unofficial fees charged by underfunded schools can amount to £30 a term. That keeps children away, in a country where £1 a day is a significant wage.
At the charity-run Tattali free school in Kaduna's back streets, children pay nothing. Its six mud-walled classrooms, none of them much bigger than a king-size bed, see an incredible 340 students a day, arriving in shifts. Among them are Zahra Mohammed and Sadiya Saidu, 14 and 15. Neither girl had ever been to school before this month; the village they came from had a teacher but no school building – "He teaches the children under the trees." In any case, the fees for registration, sanitation, books and uniforms were more than their families could afford, they said, and no child they knew had ever been to school.
Both of them fought their families to come to school in Kaduna. "My mother said she didn't want me to come. 'You don't need school, you need to help in the house'," said Zahra. A relative found the money for her to travel to the city, while Sadiya was helped by her mother. "I was supposed to get married soon, my father had decided it, and I didn't want to."
In fact, Most of the young teenage girls at the Tattali school are running away from arranged marriages. Education is one way of avoiding these sorts of abuses of women – Statistics show that, worldwide, girls with basic education marry later, have fewer and healthier children, and are less likely to catch HIV/Aids.
Sadiya and Zahra underline the real tragedy of the failed Nigerian system – these children have a passion for education and are hungry for school. And there are good teachers who want to work. Akin Zuheini, who was teaching maths at the Tattali school, told me it was impossible to get a job in the state system, "unless you are connected to someone in power". Rukkaiyat Adamu, co-ordinator of the charity behind the school, said: "There's such a desire for education here that we run this school without holidays, all day and all night." Among her pupils are several mothers, attending school for the first time with their own children.
Wale Samuel likes to quote the 19th century British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli: "Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends." In Nigeria, mired in poverty and with a fast-increasing population, that fate troubles him deeply. "We live in a country that evaluates your worth according to whether you've been to school abroad. But that's myopic, and it is covering up an explosive situation – a growing, angry, ill-educated young population without work."