Access to education is essential for children around the world

Education advocates and government ministers met this past week at the World Education Forum in South Korea to advance efforts to make a quality education accessible to all children. The World Bank pledged $2.5 billion to this end, and Canada is also doing its part. Last month, the federal government (Canada) announced it would double its contribution to the Global Partnership for Education to $120 million over four years. Canada is also giving $10 million to UNICEF for education and protection for children in humanitarian situations.

The forum is working toward ensuring that quality schooling is treated as a human right, not simply a frivolous “nice to have” for healthy children born in the right place. Around the world, 121 million children and adolescents are out of school. Finding a way to dismantle the barriers that keep them out of the classroom is critical to poverty-reduction efforts, economic growth, improved health, environmental protection and women’s rights.

The World Education Forum is working on the elaboration of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are intended to guide policy-makers for the next 15 years. The SDGs’ draft education goal aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

These SDGs are to replace the Millennium Development Goals that the global community adopted in 2000 to help leaders unite around shared, integrated objectives for the 2000-2015 period. On the education front, this led to higher school enrolment, and a move toward gender parity in schooling, particularly for primary-aged children. In fact, UNESCO says there are now 76 million fewer out-of-school children than there were in 2000. The job is not finished, however, and starting this year with the SDGs, UN member states will focus on addressing the remaining barriers that are preventing the harder-to-reach children from achieving their potential.

Barriers to education are multifaceted. The cost of school (including uniforms and textbooks) can be too much for an impoverished family to bear. Rural children are more likely to be out of school than those living in urban centres, and girls are still more likely to be left behind. This is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa, where the out-of-school rate for primary-aged girls tops 30 per cent.

Of course, war disrupts school, and the growing number of displaced people makes this situation even more challenging. The continuing crises in the Middle East, parts of Africa and in Ukraine, and the resulting rise in refugee populations, make it even more challenging to educate all children. Half of all out-of-school children live in conflict zones.

Research shows that a quality education, especially for girls, has profound, long-term implications for the health and financial opportunities for families and communities. Each additional dollar of spending on education can generate US$10-15 in economic growth, and for every additional year of schooling, a woman’s wages can increase by 20 per cent. These are powerful economic incentives for investment in education.

Furthermore, an educated mother will seek better health care and provide better nutrition for her children. Educating girls through high school leads to significantly lower rates of child marriage. Finally, educated children are more likely to ensure that their own children attend school. This creates the virtuous circle we need to fully lift people out of poverty.

As we look ahead through 2015 and beyond, the SDGs will be the yardstick against which government policies and international efforts are measured. Ending global poverty and hunger, and educating all of our children, is possible. What investment could be more important than that?

Originally published in the Montreal Gazette, May 22, 2015

Writer & volunteer with interest in global economics and int'l development. Master Int'l Affairs @ColumbiaSIPA, blogger at  Visit Tanya's website

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