Here’s why the UK must inspire others to follow its lead on education

By Lord Jack McConnell

‘Aid money squandered’; ‘global inequality grows’; ‘skills of the future’; ‘end child marriage and early motherhood’ – we are all aware of the headlines, the challenges and the controversies. But we are also aware here in the UK that education is the surest route out of poverty, and the best way to build a secure, more equal, largely law-abiding, democratic and prosperous society.

Despite resistance by those concerned about what the masses might do if educated, and the factory bosses who feared the loss of cheap child labour, Education Acts were passed in the UK because this was the smart thing to do. And we have never regretted that access to educational opportunity for all.

So to spend aid well, help girls fulfil their potential, improve health and grow businesses, surely we should practice what we know works and invest more in education globally. And we should invest in quality, in co-operation with others, and direct funds at those most in need – in refugees camps and conflict zones, girls and young women, and those excluded because of geography, race or religion in the past.

150 years on from universal education here, at the start of 2018, an estimated 260 million children and young people are still not enrolled in school, and according to a recent World Bank education report a further 330 million may be in school but are learning little.

Current funding for education is falling woefully short.  The United Nations estimates an annual spending gap of $39 billion in what is needed to reach the Sustainable Development Goals’ education targets. This weekend, Britain and other leading nations have a new opportunity to change this picture. Global leaders will gather in Senegal on February 2 and will be asked to help crowdfund the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) – the only global fund solely dedicated to education in developing countries.

The GPE hopes to raise a record USD $3.1 billion from government and private donations to fund its programmes up until 2020. If world leaders attending the conference chip in enough, millions of young people – especially the 130 million girls missing from classrooms – will be given the chance to attend school and gain a basic education that will benefit their employment skills and life chances, helping propel their communities and countries to sustained economic and social development.

On current financing and programming trends, it will take another 70 years – until 2088 – for all children in sub-Saharan Africa to be afforded a basic, quality education. But such a wait is unthinkable.

The boom in African youth expected by 2030, when Africa’s population will double to 2 billion will further stretch the systems that support them. And without a quality basic education, millions of young people in the world’s poorest countries will be left behind, bereft of the skills needed for survival in the 21st century. This will result in growing unemployment, more poverty, inequality and instability, threatening not just individual countries or regions but the entire international community for decades to come.

But amid the foreboding statistics and predictions, there is tangible optimism.   Education experts point to the so-called “golden decade for health” as evidence of achievable success once the political will to make meaningful change gathers unstoppable momentum.

In 2003, then US President George W Bush launched the world’s largest provider of AIDS-fighting medicine, PEPFAR – the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

As PEPFAR notched up remarkable results – healthier populations helped build prosperity in communities once blighted by disease – it galvanized the global health community, and attracted committed backers from the public and private sector. Health financing budgets increased year-on-year over the next decade, and expanded into other service provisions, including cervical cancer.

The same political and financial traction of scale are now urgently required for education. If leaders commit a record amount to the GPE as hoped, education could experience its own golden decade and transform the lives of millions.

I am very proud that my country is counted as a revered and inspirational GPE partner facing up to this challenge. Only the U.S. and the World Bank give more to education than the U.K., and since 2015 U.K. aid has supported 7 million children in getting an education, and that number was predicted to rise to 11 million by 2020.

But last year, UNESCO identified a worrying global trend showing donors were giving less aid money to education, with the U.K.’s allocation shrinking from 13 percent of total aid in 2012 to 8 percent in 2016. This downward shift must be urgently arrested and reversed if the remarkable work to date is to be preserved and built upon.

The UK must do what it does best at the GPE summit – inspire others to follow its lead.  A pledge of 380.8 million pounds ($500 million) from the UK this week would not only help 4.75 million more children complete primary school and help those already in school to learn more, it would set the bar and push others to help the GPE reach its target.

We signed up in 2015 to ‘Leave No-one Behind’ and it is without a doubt that investment in education will be essential if those that are furthest behind are to have a chance of realising their potential. Millions more literate, liberated, numerate, confident, active and engaged young people. That is the prize. Let’s do our bit to make it happen.

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