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UK leadership on girls’ education cannot be realised without tackling global child poverty

Next week, millions of children in the UK will return to classrooms after months under lockdown.

Boris Johnson has called the return to school this autumn a “moral duty”, and warned of the potential harm to children’s prospects and mental health if school doors stay shut. As the government takes steps to ensure a safe transition back to school in the UK, how will it use its leadership role to address the global learning crisis facing millions of children, especially girls, who may never return to the classroom?

If we are to live up to the pledge to leave no child behind, the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office must heed its own government’s advice: investing in systems such as education will ensure that all girls and boys not only realise their rights and achieve their potential, but belong to the generation that overcomes COVID-19 and breaks the cycle of poverty.

Widening learning inequalities

Even before the pandemic, 258 million children were out of school, including 130 million girls – with poverty being the leading factor in determining whether a girl goes to school.

No parent should have to choose between educating their child and putting food on the table. Our new research found that up to 10 million children around the world are in danger of never returning to school due to the economic impact of COVID-19 – with the poorest and most marginalised girls at greatest risk.

The economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 has devastated many of the world’s poorest countries. Sub-Saharan Africa is heading for its deepest recession in 50 years, while global estimates suggest that the number of children living in poverty could soar by more than 100 million. Budgets for systems that underpin sustainable development are under pressure, threatening to rob children of the learning that could lift them out of poverty.

The A-level results fiasco in the UK highlighted the unfairness of young people’s futures being determined by where they go to school. Educational inequity is not acceptable in the UK – and should not be acceptable anywhere. I was inspired by the recent collective advocacy of young people in the UK who demanded their right to education against the odds.

Around the world, children are coming together to deliver a simple, but powerful message to their governments – save our education.

Yet in many countries where we work, children continue to face barriers to learning because of who they are and where they live. Often governments have the political will – but not the technical and financial resources – to deliver children’s right and demand for education. This is where UK aid plays an important role. 

The role of UK aid

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson set out the UK government’s global commitment to ensuring 12 years of good-quality education for all children, especially girls. For the last decade, the UK has been a leader in girls’ education, delivering good-quality learning for more than 1 million marginalised girls through the Girls’ Education Challenge.

In order to deliver on this manifesto commitment, the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office must adopt a mandate of poverty reduction and equity as it brings together development expertise and diplomatic influence to drive change for the most marginalised children.

Children cannot learn if they are hungry, scared, or lack basic shelter and care; and children pushed into poverty may be forced to work to help their family. Girls, especially those living in poverty in rural areas, are less likely to learn at home while schools are closed than boys due to inequalities in digital access.

Out-of-school adolescent girls are at increased risk of early and forced marriage, pregnancy or gender-based violence – trapping them in a cycle of poverty.

In Nigeria only 4% of poor young women in the North West of the country can read, compared with 99% of young women from well-off families in the South East. Globally, across low-income countries, 69 young women complete secondary school for every 100 young men.

Not only is education a fundamental right; with the global economic downturn caused by COVID-19, investing in girls’ education is critical to alleviating poverty, promoting recovery and building back better. Every additional year of school increases a woman’s earnings by 10–20%.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office owes it to the legacy of its first-class aid department – and to children’s futures – to retain a sharp focus on equity. Delivering learning for those children who are most marginalised and deprived, especially girls, will help us tackle the global challenges presented by COVID-19 and accelerate progress towards ensuring no child is left behind.

As schools around the UK prepare to reopen their doors to children, is it not also the UK’s moral duty to ensure that all girls and boys living in the world’s poorest countries return to learning?

Read more from our blog series on The Future of British Aid.

Save our education