Education is one of the most powerful weapons we have in the fight against extreme poverty. When a child is equipped with the knowledge and skills that quality education can deliver, whole communities and societies benefit.
On 24 January, the world celebrates the first ever International Day of Education. It could not come at a better time to highlight the urgency of getting more children into school and learning. We are still not seeing the progress needed to provide 12 years of quality education to every child in the world. We need to reverse this trend. Time to step it up! And it’s time to make sure all children have the opportunities in life that a good education provides.
Education is not just a right in itself, it’s also an important catalyst: for peace, for health, for prosperity, for gender equity. If everybody completed secondary education, we could lift over 420 million people out of poverty. And if every girl in Sub-Saharan Africa completed primary school, maternal mortality could fall by 70%. In short: Quality education for all is the world’s best antidote to poverty and instability.
What are the challenges?
The good news first. Since the turn of the century, we have come a long way getting children into school. UNESCO estimates that while there were over 375 million children and youth out of school in 2000, today this has reduced to 262 million.
Now, the bad news. We’re not making nearly enough progress, and the number of children accessing education has stagnated. In fact, 1 in 5 children and youth did not go to school last year – the numbers go up to 1 in 3 in Sub-Saharan Africa.
And that isn’t all. More than 600 million children and adolescents worldwide are not even learning basic skills – and two-thirds of them are in school! The World Bank shows that in some African countries, such as Zambia and Malawi, more than 85% of primary school students are unable to read proficiently.
As the numbers show, poor access to education, and education that is failing to deliver even basic levels of learning disproportionately affects children living in the world’s poorest countries. This is a global learning crisis testament to the biggest issue: investment and interventions in education too often fail to target learning.
How can we step it up?
There is no silver bullet – no “one size fits all” strategy to remedy this crisis. But there are three lessons that are holding true for reforms across the globe:
- Focus on early grade learning: The early years are decisive for a child’s learning trajectory. If they fall behind by age 10, it is almost impossible to get back on track later in life. Children need to learn basic academic skills like literacy and numeracy, but also 21st-century skills such as creativity or problem-solving, that are becoming more and more important in a globalized and technologically advanced economy.
- Better financing: Simply spending more money on education does not automatically improve children’s learning. Countries and donors need to be better at tracking how much they spend on education, what they spend it on, and most importantly, whether children’s learning is improving. Being open and transparent about how money is spent, is crucial. Financing must lead to results.
- Better data systems: World leaders have committed to ending extreme poverty by 2030 by agreeing on 17 Sustainable Development Goals. One of these Goals is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Yet, just 23% of countries are currently reporting against measurement indicators to achieve this goal. Without better information about the exact size and shape of the education crisis, the world’s efforts to address it will not be as effective as it could be.
This #EducationDay is a great reminder of what has been achieved so far, and the challenges still to come. We don’t have time to waste – children need to be on track to learning. Let’s get to it.