Every year the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meets in New York. Global leaders bang the drum, commit to change, roll out new policies. Over time, the Sustainable Development Goals replaced the Millennium Development Goals and the communal goals such as reducing poverty, aiding refugees and improving education outcomes, particularly for girls, gained traction.
Yet, in many communities, cultural, economic or religious context can hamper their successful pursuit. These barriers damage prosperity and growth for our interconnected world.
Many of the goals are interlinked and progress in one has implications for another. Therefore, it is worrying – both in and of itself and for its causal effects – that the latest UN education report reveals the number of girls out of school increased by 6 per cent over just one year (2015 -2016). The general public’s impression was that the global community is getting closer to achieving the goals, not falling further behind.
Amidst the agenda items that rightly preoccupied UNGA were Yemen, the Rohingyas, South Sudan, and, of course, Syria. Underpinning the unrest, bloodshed, and migration in many conflict zones is the issue of education – or rather, a lack of it.
Over 600 million children and adolescents are currently being failed either because they are not in school or because they are in schools but not learning. It is challenging. For the 330 million in a ‘school’ who are not learning it’s absolutely clear that a good school is far more than a just a building. Yet, in many areas even having a school building is a hurdle to overcome. In some places children are not in school because there are none.
In States like Borno thousands have been destroyed; in large urban slums such as Lagos or Nairobi there are simply not enough government schools for the population; in areas where refugees are seeking safety, there were often no schools to begin with. In such places even the creation of enough government schools in their most physical sense is a challenge.
However, it is only by tackling the inadequacy of learning that happens within the walls of classrooms that have been constructed, and those that need to be, that meaningful progress will be made for the 600 million.
It is only relatively recently, that we’ve seen a shift from access to outcomes as the benchmarks of successful intervention. When education inequality doubles, the chances of conflict more than doubles. Education drives economic growth and enables people to break the cycle of poverty; diminishing the likelihood of conflict and the appeal of radical ideologies and extremist groups. As the late UN General Secretary Kofi Annan said: “Education is the promise of progress, in every society, in every family.”
An urgent coalescence is needed around the importance of actual provision of quality education to every child – one that prioritises immediate, measured results that deliver on reducing inequity and increasing children’s learning, rather than getting lost in debate over parent choice or the tax status of education service organizations.
Given the critical importance to the prosperity of the world of ensuring the delivery of every child’s right to education, we need robust debate on core education policy frameworks. That debate should be evidence-based and recognize the dignity of parents and children as active decision-makers in their education, and future.
It is encouraging that recent research has shown that it is possible, even probable, for education interventions to have significant impact over 1 year, let alone the 4-6 year terms of most government leaders. In the first year that our students in Kenya sat the KCPE, results showed performance differences were most impressive in counties with poverty rates of 30pc or higher; 89pc of Bridge girls outperformed Kenyan boys. In India, a three year RCT by Educate Girls saw learning levels increase by 79% in the final year. This should embolden elected leaders to make significant investments into education programming with proven learning impacts at scale.
Ensuring the delivery of high quality education to all would dramatically reduce the frequency of humanitarian crises that emerge from the lack of it. Delivery would necessitate the implementation of initiatives focused on transformational systems change, utilizing all committed and proven partners. Such action would also have popular support, in a survey by ONE Seventy-five percent of US adults surveyed expressed support for education public private partnerships to help countries struggling with sufficient access to education.
In geography as diverse as Liberia, Nigeria, and India, governments have been courageous enough to acknowledge that many government schools have been failing children, and rather than wringing their hands and doing nothing, have taken direct action to transform failing systems into powerful systems through public private partnerships. Education leadership requires strong political leadership.
In enabling system change, we need to ensure that it delivers learning opportunities for all, reversing the increase in girls that are out of school. This means breaking down the barriers that prevent girls attending and participating equally in the classroom. The consequence of not doing so is social and economic marginalization, and ultimately a reduction in GDP.
Against the odds in many developing countries, girls are aspiring to academic success whether they live in refugee camps, slums or remote villages. They believe, as does Bridge, that they can achieve anything if they study hard. All they need is a good school, a great teacher and a chance to learn. Given that chance, they will change the future of their family, their nation, and the prosperity of the world.
Yet, to get that chance we need change. Young girls today in the majority of developing countries need superpowers to overcome current odds set by existing systems. We are calling on policy makers to consider what would most effectively impact the entire SDG agenda in the long term, and prioritise children’s learning as a measurable, and achievable goal.
(Dr May is a co-founder, Bridge International Academies)