Class struggle

Around the world, 263 million children and young people are out of school. By 2030, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) wants to reverse that. Former Australian prime minister and GPE chair Julia Gillard explains why – despite the barriers – creating quality, inclusive education for all is within the world’s grasp

Education today has an access problem. Globally, more than 260 million children and young people are out of school, and making education available to them will require a huge shift. For many, given their circumstances, it’s not going to be the traditional model of a school at the end of the road, with classrooms and teachers. To meet the needs of very poor families, of refugee families, we’ll need to be more flexible than that.

But this is not a John F Kennedy moon shot. We are not saying to the world: ‘Let’s do something humanity has never done before.’ If every country was improving its education at the rate of the top 25 per cent of nations in their income band, then we could solve this. We could create a learning generation.

"If we did a stock take today: ‘Are we doing enough to finance education?’ The answer would be an unambiguous no"For a long time, education has been less visible than issues such as global health. When the world came together for the millennium development goals (MDGs), much of the buzz afterwards was in health. It created the big levers we’re seeing now – Gavi, the global vaccine alliance and others – that have made a profound difference. But in the wake of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), that buzz is around education. And that’s because the evidence is so clear that it is a building block. The health agenda can’t be achieved without education. The anti-poverty agenda can’t be met without it. The currents of change are, for the first time, focused on education.

Funding remains a key issue. In recent years, we have seen overseas development assistance go up by 8 per cent, but education’s share has fallen by 12 per cent. In humanitarian appeals, education typically only runs at 2 per cent. If we did a stock take today, and asked: ‘Are we doing enough to finance education?’ I think the answer would be an unambiguous no.

Addressing that requires a step change in private philanthropy. That means at-scale philanthropy engaged in education, as well as catalytic private engagement around the new knowledge we need to create. The field is wide open, and I think philanthropists entering the field now will not only get the sense that they’re doing good, but that they’re at the forefront of innovation. In terms of being reassured and engaged about where your dollars are going, education offers a great deal.

The MDGs showed us that it’s not just about getting kids into school. Many countries have made great strides in building schools, in enrollment, but the quality of teaching within those classrooms isn’t good enough for children to learn. We see classrooms of 100 kids, with one teacher, no or very few books, and learning is done by rote. A few children keep up, and the others are left behind. Fixing this requires patient work. GPE supports countries both in helping to properly plan their schools and schooling systems, and in increasing access and quality.

'If there are large numbers of young people with nothing to do, in the absence of a book, they will pick up a weapon'There is no silver bullet in development. But the thing that comes closest is girls’ education. At GPE, when we work with countries to plan their education systems, we won’t fund against plans that aren’t inclusive for girls. We know that educating girls means fewer children dying of preventable diseases. We know it means less poverty, and more inclusive economic growth. More importantly, countries can see the difference it makes.

In Malawi, in early February, I visited a village where a mothers’ group works to offer informal childcare to young girls with babies, so they can go back to school. A mothers’ group in Malawi is a long way from the UN, yet they too understand the benefits of educating girls.

If we don’t act on education, what will the world look like in 2030? It’s a dark picture. To cite a report from the Education Commission, half of the jobs in the global economy will have disappeared as new technology impacts on the workplace. Of the 1.6 billion children in school, half will be on track to leave secondary school without basic secondary-level skills. It’s clear the crisis that arises from having high-level jobs, and young people unequipped with the skills to do them. It means lower global growth. It means people without hope, which we know leads to conflict, to displacement, to political instability. We’ve watched this movie before. We know that if there are large numbers of young people with nothing to do, in the absence of a book, they will pick up a weapon. In our globally connected world, that sort of instability infects us all.

Education requires patience. Kids don’t learn in five minutes; they learn every day. And unless you are getting their education right every day, they won’t reach their full potential. But we all know from our own experiences that there are literally moments when you can watch a penny drop, or a concept land, and that child knows something they’ve never known before. You have that delightful sense that you’ve changed a life. In asking people to support GPE, and to support global access to education, we’re really asking people to feel that moment of wonder – and not at the scale of 1 to 1, but at a scale of hundreds of millions.