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Getting serious about the SDGs and education

It’s not every week that aid donors have a chance to put their money behind a great cause, with returns that would have most investors straining at the leash – but this week is one of them. Meeting in Dakar, Senegal, at a financing summit for the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), governments have an opportunity to open the doors to learning now closed for millions of children. They must seize the opportunity.

The stakes in Dakar could hardly be higher. In the midst our increasingly knowledge-based and interconnected global economy, there are 263 million children out of school. That figure includes over 60 million primary school age children. Denied a chance to take the first step on the education ladder, many of these children will be left trapped in a cycle of poverty and disadvantage.

The challenges faced by girls

Girls face disadvantages at every level. Being born female in sub-Saharan Africa increases the risk of never going to primary school by 50 per cent. Across much of Africa and Asia, girls are also more likely to drop out of primary school and less likely to make the transition to secondary school.

Not that getting into school is an automatic route to learning. According to the Education Commission, there are 330 million children in school but not learning the basics. Let’s be clear about the consequences. This is a learning crisis that leaves millions of primary school children unable to read, write or do basic addition after 5 years of schooling. And it’s a crisis that, in many countries, will see children leaving secondary school without the skills they need to realise their potential.

Finance is not the only issue behind the learning crisis. Far too many governments around the world have failed to provide the political leadership needed to ensure that school systems are equipped to deliver the learning. Yet without additional financing, there is no solution to a crisis which threatens not just the growth prospects but the social cohesion of so many countries.

Where the GPE financing summit steps in

Enter the Global Partnership for Education financing summit. Every country has a responsibility to mobilise the finance needed to extend educational opportunity. But for the poorest countries, even the best effort at resource mobilisation will leave them short of the funds required to pay teachers, build schools and deliver a decent learning environment. UNESCO puts the annual funding gap at $39bn.

The bad news is that aid for education is in decline from already abysmally low levels, running at just $5bn. The summit in Dakar could mark the first step towards changing this picture. The GPE is the world’s global fund for education. Geared towards the poorest countries, over recent years it has ramped up support for states affected by conflict and violence – and it has strengthened its focus on the most disadvantaged children.

The GPE has requested funding of $3.5bn for the next three years. Save the Children unequivocally supports that call. This is a small investment with some of the highest returns on offer in development. Well-targeted financing for education is not just a driver of increased productivity, growth and jobs. It’s also an investment in getting children out of child labour markets, keeping girls out of early marriage, and improved health.

As a global leader, the UK has a pivotal role to play here. By making a pledge of $500 million at the conference this week, the UK could show that we’re serious about turning political commitment into a funded reality for all children.

Three years ago governments came together to agree the Sustainable Development Goals – an ambitious set of targets for eradicating poverty, ending preventable child deaths, and expanding learning opportunities. This week in Dakar they have a chance to demonstrate that they were serious.

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