How to get every child to school
Now is the time for national governments and the international community to come together to give children and young people the opportunities they deserve
By: Gordon Brown
We write to call for urgent action to address the global education emergency triggered by Covid-19. With more than one billion children still out of school because of the lockdown, there is a real and present danger that the public-health crisis will create a Covid generation who loses out on schooling and whose opportunities are permanently damaged. While the more fortunate have had access to alternatives, the world’s poorest children have been locked out of learning and denied Internet access. And with the loss of free school meals – once a lifeline for nearly 400 million boys and girls – hunger has grown.
An immediate concern as we bring the lockdown to an end is the fate of an estimated 30 million children who, according to Unesco, may never return to school. For these, the world’s least-advantaged children, education is often the only escape from poverty – a route that is in danger of closing.
Many of these children are adolescent girls for whom being in school is the best defense against forced marriage and the best hope for expanded opportunities. Many more are young children who risk being forced into exploitative and dangerous labour. And because education is linked to progress in virtually every area of human development – from child survival to maternal health, gender equality, job creation, and inclusive economic growth – the education emergency will undermine the prospects for achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and potentially set back progress on gender equity by years. According to the World Bank, the long-term economic cost of lost schooling could be as much as $10 trillion.
We cannot stand by and allow these young people to be robbed of their education and a fair chance in life. Instead, we should be redoubling our efforts to get all children into school – including the 260 million already out of school and the 75 million children affected by protracted conflicts and forced displacement, among whom are 35 million refugees or internally displaced people. We should provide them with the comprehensive help they need and make it possible for young people to start or resume their studies in school, as well as further and higher education.
There is a longer-term challenge. Even before Covid-19, the world faced a learning crisis. Over half of the children in developing countries suffer from “learning poverty” and even at age 11 have little or no basic literacy and numeracy skills. As a result, 800 million of today’s young people leave education with no qualifications whatsoever. If we are to avoid this, the millions of children who are now preparing to return to school, having lost over a half-year of education, need their governments to invest in catch-up programmes and proper learning assessment. When schools reopened after Pakistan’s 2005 earthquake, attendance recovered, but four years later children had lost the equivalent of 1.5 years of schooling.
Resources are now urgently needed to get young people back into education and enable them to catch up. What is more, we should rebuild better: more support for online learning, personalised learning, and teacher training; conditional cash transfers for poor families; and safer schools that meet distancing rules. This should build on the enormous community effort that has been displayed during the pandemic and the coalition of global organisations that have now joined forces in the Save our Future initiative, launched on August 4.
Yet at the very time we need extra resources, education funding is in danger on three fronts:
- As slower or negative growth undermines tax revenues, less money may be available in almost every country for public services, including education.
- When allocating limited funds, some governments may leave education crowded out and underfunded as they prioritise expenditure on health and economic recovery.
- Intensifying fiscal pressure in developed countries will result in reductions in international development aid, including aid for education, which has already been losing out to other priorities in the allocation of bilateral and multilateral aid. There is also a danger that multilateral donors, who already under-invest in education, will reallocate funds.
The World Bank now estimates that, over the next year, overall education spending in low and middle-income countries could be $100-150 billion lower than previously planned.
This funding crisis will not resolve itself.
We call on the G20, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and regional development banks, and all countries to recognise the scale of the crisis and support initiatives to enable catching up and to resume progress toward SDG4.
First, every country should pledge to protect front-line education spending, prioritising the needs of the most disadvantaged children through conditional and unconditional cash transfers to promote school participation, where possible.
Second, the international community must increase aid for education, focusing on the most vulnerable, including the poor, girls, children in conflict situations, and the disabled. The quickest way to free up resources for education is through debt relief. The 76 poorest countries have to pay $86 billion in debt-service costs over the next two years. We call for debt suspension, with a requirement that the money for debt servicing be reallocated to education and other priority investments for children.
Third, the IMF should issue $1.2 trillion in Special Drawing Rights (its global reserve asset) and its membership should agree to channel these resources toward the countries that need them most, creating a platform for recovery.
And fourth, the World Bank should unlock more support for low-income countries through a supplementary International Development Association budget, and – following the lead of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, which have now pledged $650 million to the new International Finance Facility for Education to help unlock billions in extra finance for education in lower-middle-income countries – invite additional guarantees and grants from donors. This is in addition to the replenishment over next two years of the Global Partnership for Education, scaled-up investment in Education Cannot Wait, and continued support for the UN agencies focused on education and children (led by Unesco and Unicef). We also call on private-sector corporations and foundations to make support for global education a greater priority.
Sustainable human development can only be built on a foundation of quality education. While the challenges are momentous, the impact of the crisis on children has made us even more determined to realise the ambition contained in SDG4, that ours can be the first generation in history in which every child is in school and has the chance to develop their potential to the fullest. Now is the time for national governments and the international community to come together to give children and young people the opportunities they deserve and to which they are entitled.
Gordon Brown is the former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom. -Project Syndicate