Nigel Chapman is the CEO of Plan International, an NGO which works to combat child poverty.
Education is not only every child’s right; it has a wider benefit for families, communities and countries, who all reap rewards from its enabling power. It is also one of the main drivers of sustainable and inclusive development.
But today, within striking distance of the deadline to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), this basic right remains far from a reality for all. While notable progress has been made since the turn of the century, we are a long way from meeting the target of universal primary education. In recent years the number of out-of-school children has stagnated – according to the most recent data, there were 57 million out-of-school children of primary school age in 2011, down only two million on the previous year. In some countries, progress has not just stalled but gone into reverse.
In addition, global figures mask underlying inequalities both between and within countries. Poverty, gender, conflict, location and disability all affect a child’s chances of making it to the classroom and progressing to graduation. Girls are disproportionately disadvantaged, and encounter their own unique challenges which deny them an education. These often start with their families’ own attitudes towards the value of girls’ education: when forced to choose between educating their son or daughter, families often opt to invest in their son’s future.
Even if girls are enrolled, they are more likely to drop out before they complete the minimum recommended nine years of schooling. Child marriage and early pregnancy, gender based violence and being forced to bear the brunt of domestic labour are additional hurdles which girls must overcome in their fight just to go to school. We must ensure that children, especially girls, not only start school but finish it: universal access means very little if millions continue to drop out before graduation.
The MDG framework, for all its merits, has failed to remedy these persistent inequalities in accessing education. With an emphasis on quantitative rather than qualitative targets, it is easier to simply focus on increasing numbers of enrolled pupils rather than target the most marginalised and hardest to reach.
The international community must not repeat the mistakes of the past in the post-2015 framework. The EU has a key role to play in pushing for a more equitable education agenda. This means including a dedicated education goal in the new framework with both quantitative and qualitative indicators and data, disaggregated by sex, age, location, wealth quintile and disability to target, track and address exclusion. Knowing who is in school is the first step towards eliminating the marginalisation and exclusion, which hampers progress towards the achievement of basic education for all.
But just getting children into the classroom is not, in itself, enough: they must learn when they are there. It is therefore imperative that efforts are made to tackle the “learning crisis”, where a lack of a quality education has resulted in at least 250 million children being unable to read or count, even after spending four years in school.
While basic literacy and numeracy skills are vital, a quality education goes far beyond the ability to read and write. The classroom should be a place where children learn to be responsible and active citizens; a place which supports children and young people to develop their full potential; their personality, critical thinking and life skills. Quality education also means equipping young people with the knowledge and skills necessary for productive livelihoods.
We need both universal access and quality education – it’s about every single child’s right to go to school and to learn well and productively, and enjoying the experience and being enriched by it. This must be our unrelenting ambition.
As the international debate turns towards the post-2015 framework, we must not take our eye off achieving the MDGs. In fact, we must step up our efforts to achieve the goals by the date set. This is something to which Plan has committed itself through its programmes in fifty countries where education in particular plays a big part in almost all of them. Our Because I am a Girl Campaign which is targeted at improving the lives of 4 million girls with access to school, skills, livelihoods and protection and 400 million more through positive policy changes. Is central to our work in all parts of the world.
All girls and boys should have equal access to, and complete a quality primary and lower-secondary education in a safe and supportive learning environment, with opportunities for life-long learning. This is the absolute minimum. We are counting on the EU, and the international community at large, to stand behind us in realising this goal – now and in the future.