Achieving Education for All

PARIS – Leave no person or country behind. This is the ultimate ambition of the sustainable development agenda that will be adopted at the United Nations in September. As the world prepares to rally around a new set of goals to improve lives and protect the planet, we must load the dice. That is why the upcoming Oslo Summit on Education for Development is so important.

Education has the potential to become one of the most powerful catalysts for development in the years ahead, serving as a bridge from poverty to prosperity, from exclusion to participation, from division to understanding. Improved education is associated with many positive developments, including fewer child marriages, lower death rates among children under the age of five and mothers during childbirth, more effective HIV prevention, higher wages, and greater economic growth. As the challenges we face grow more daunting than ever, more and better education will be the key to confronting them.

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This conviction underpins the Incheon Declaration, adopted by 120 ministers and representatives from 160 countries in May at the World Education Forum (WEF) in Incheon, Republic of Korea. The declaration demonstrates a strong commitment to the fourth proposed Sustainable Development Goal (SDG): to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. And it lays the groundwork for a truly transformational approach to education, one that is holistic, ambitious, and aspirational.

Specifically, the Incheon Declaration calls for all people to gain access to 12 years of publicly funded education, of which at least nine years are compulsory. The goal is to transmit not only the basics, but also the skills and values to make our societies more equitable, resilient, and inclusive. In the harshest conditions – from South Sudan to Iraq to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan – education can empower young people to build a better future, while inspiring hope and confidence.

But, to have the maximum impact, educational initiatives must leave no one behind – not the poor or disadvantaged, and not girls, who have all too often paid a high price for trying to get an education. Recent data by UNESCO show that 124 million children and adolescents are out of school worldwide. In South and West Asia, 80% of out-of-school girls are unlikely to start school, compared to just 16% for boys. The true measure of any policy’s success is the extent to which it benefits the most marginalized.

Free and compulsory education, though essential, will be insufficient to ensure that all school-age children can actually attend school. Other solutions may include conditional cash transfers, scholarships for girls, the construction of schools in remote areas, blended learning programs, new facilities for disabled learners, and incentives for teachers to work in difficult conditions. Experiences with such initiatives should be shared more widely to inform policy.

Beyond getting children into school, efforts must be made to ensure the quality of the education they receive. Over the last decade, the surge in enrollment, together with the expansion of learning assessments, has exposed the scale of the quality crisis in education. At least 250 million children around the world have been left unable to read, write, or count adequately after four years in school.

Education systems are under pressure, but the argument that there is a tradeoff between access and quality does not hold water. Inclusion breeds excellence. Teachers and schools need to be given the means to fulfill their mission of giving students the skills and knowledge they need to gain decent employment and contribute to society.

And learning does not stop in school. To compete in a highly interconnected, increasingly knowledge-based, and technologically driven global economy, people must continue to learn and adapt throughout their lives. Given this, simply learning the fundamentals in school is not enough; students also need to gain the capacity to analyze, think critically and creatively, and solve problems.

Implementing this ambitious vision of education will require new and broader partnerships. This begins with political will and the setting of priorities. At the WEF in Incheon, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi called for a mass popular movement demanding that education be placed prominently on the agenda of every politician running for election, at all levels of government.

For the SDGs to be operational, education has to receive higher billing, nationally and globally. The Incheon Declaration calls for the allocation of at least 15-20% of total public expenditure to education. Moreover, the ongoing decline in aid to education must be reversed, and new financial sources – such as emerging-economy donors, the private sector, foundations, and philanthropists – must be mobilized. Education is a global common good, and it is everyone’s concern.

A massive global push is required to address the plight of children and young people in conflict-affected countries, such as Syria. Humanitarian aid for education remains paltry in relation to need. Education must be an integral part of any emergency response, and all peace-building efforts.

Change can be leveraged through new partnerships that connect education imperatives with those in health, technology, and other relevant sectors. This approach – which will guide the efforts of a joint program launched earlier this year by UNESCO, UN Women, and UNFPA, with support from the World Bank, to empower adolescent girls and young women through education – ensures that initiatives will have the strongest impact.

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The upcoming Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, will be a test of the political commitment to achieve global development goals. The Oslo summit will, one expects, provide motivation for political leaders to rise to the challenge they face, as it highlights the high stakes of investment in education.

Education has its share of champions, but it needs more of them, from all segments of society. There will be pressures and competing interests, but the bottom line is that leaving no one behind begins with ensuring a high-quality education for all.