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Lewisham pupils thinking globally

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06 July 2015
Ratherfern Puppet It was a real pleasure last week to visit Rathfern Primary school to say hello to some of the wonderful pupils there who have been working on the Send My Friend campaign - an initiative to ensure that children worldwide have the chance to go to school. I took away with me some of the wonderful paper puppets that the children created - each one suggesting what they would do if they were a world leader. Later in Parliament, I was lucky enough to speak in a debate on global development goals in education and give the minister responding one of the puppets I had taken away with me from the school. My speech is below and, of course, this post would not be complete without a photo of the minister-bound puppet!

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Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate with you in the Chair, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing today’s debate. I think he said he was co-chair of the all-party group on global education, and it is clear that he has great expertise in this area, so I am pleased that he led the debate today. It was also a pleasure to hear such excellent contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady).

Access to education is a fundamental human right. Although in countries such as the UK we may take our education systems for granted, the same is not true the world over. We may understand the potential of education to drive prosperity, create tolerant and inclusive societies and tackle inequality, but the sad truth is that a decent education is still not available for far too many people in far too many countries across the world. I want to talk today about the huge potential that education offers, the progress that has been made to date and the challenges that still exist. I want to suggest to the Minister that the actions of our Government and the international community must be focused on ensuring that the poorest and most marginalised see significant gains in their access to decent education over the next 15 years and that we use the sustainable development goals to make the world a more equal place, reducing the gap between the richest and poorest.

Some people may think that this debate interests only experts in international development and education policy makers, or those who work for international aid charities. My experience tells me something very different. Strange as it may seem, I recall conversations on the doorstep at the election in my constituency of Lewisham East where I ended up talking about the need to improve education in the developing world. I will take a couple of minutes to explain how that came about.

When asked about our spending on foreign aid, I would say that it was surely right to help children in developing countries to go to school. When asked about immigration, I would say that while our world remains so unequal, people will always aspire to move from one country to another to improve their lot in life. I would do it, the Minister would do it, and unless education can drive economic development and prosperity in the developing world, this will remain the case. Unless education can give women information about their own bodies and reproductive rights, we will continue to see enormous population growth in parts of the world that will struggle to deal with it. Unless future generations are educated about the peace and tolerance that lie at the true heart of our big global religions, extremism and radicalisation will be allowed to flourish. It has been said before, but it is worth saying again: education is the most effective vaccine against extremism.

It may sound sensationalist, but education really can be a matter of life and death. Educated societies are less likely to see violence and conflict as the way to resolve problems and differences. On a fundamental indicator such as child mortality, education has a dramatic effect. A recent Lancet study, for example, found that around half the reduction witnessed in under-five mortality every year—4.2 million deaths in total—can be attributed to improved levels of education. It is clear that the advantages of a decent education are vast and unequivocal.

However, the potential of education to deliver change is determined by two key factors. The first is the extent to which education can be accessed by the poorest and most marginalised. If gender, caste, race, disability, religion or sexuality—all characteristics determined at birth—are the same attributes that determine access to education, schooling becomes a further driver in a vicious cycle of prejudice and inequality. The second factor is the quality of education received. Again, if learning outcomes are determined by the wealth of a person’s parents or the community in which they live, education will perpetuate and reinforce pre-existing inequalities.

Although great gains were undoubtedly achieved with the millennium development goals, we can see that we have fallen far short. Although the number of children out of primary education has almost halved in a generation, 58 million children across the world remain outside of any schooling system. Of these, nearly half have never once seen the inside of a classroom. We will clearly miss the second millennium development goal’s target of achieving universal primary education by 2015. Perhaps more worrying is that any signs of progress have seemingly stalled: the number of children not in school has remained constant for more than five years. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion has already said, experts are also warning of a learning crisis in the quality of education: children who do attend school are being let down by the standard of learning that they are exposed to.

An estimated 250 million children worldwide are not able to read, write or perform basic arithmetic. That is four in every 10 children of primary school age whose future is frustrated from the very start, and it is the most marginalised children who continue to miss out. Children from poorer families remain five times more likely to be out of school than children from more wealthy families. In west and central Africa, the gap is even wider. In Guinea, two thirds of children from the poorest households will never enter school, and alarming gaps persist in learning outcomes between children from richer and poorer households.

Although overall levels of girls’ education have improved, in many countries the gender gap remains large. In some places—eastern and southern Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean—these gaps have not only endured, but widened. Significant gender disparities also persist in children’s learning performance. As has already been said, children with disabilities are not only less likely to be in school, but are more likely to drop out, as their needs fail to be catered for.

Finally, the percentage of children outside the schooling system in conflict-affected states has increased. The image of Syrian children in refugee camps should haunt us all on a daily basis. The legacy of failure will affect future generations. The global education agenda has been the subject of many ambitious summits and global accords—not only the millennium development goals, but the Dakar Framework for Action and now the SDGs, which is the subject of today’s debate. The Government’s action on that agenda must be welcomed.

Having said that, I am aware of continued issues with the Department for International Development’s delivery of educational programmes in Nigeria. The most recent annual review, for the third phase of the girls’ education project, which has £103 million to support more than 1 million girls to complete basic education, notes fundamental uncertainty about the ability of the in-country partner to deliver that crucial project. That is a full two years after deep and pervasive concerns were revealed in a review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Furthermore, I also share ICAI’s concern that DFID’s withdrawal from India could be happening too fast. In a country where more than 1 million children remain out of school, is it right that all funding should come to an end by March of next year and that all technical advice should be withdrawn only a few months later? I will welcome the Minister’s thoughts on those two specific issues.

Despite that, it must be recognised that the Department for International Development has consistently increased the level of funding that it invests in education. The continued focus on the importance of girls’ learning must also be welcomed, but now is not the time for complacency. The scale of the challenge we face is only projected to grow. In sub-Saharan Africa, already the region with the largest number of children not in schooling, UNICEF estimates that 444 million children will be in need of basic education by 2030, which is nearly three times the number enrolled in schools today. If we are to achieve the transformative change that we all want to see, we must understand the scale and the nature of the challenge we face, learn from past mistakes and ensure concerted global action to deliver decent education for all.

To that end, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that tackling inequality is embedded in his Department’s work in this crucial area? What will he be doing to ensure that children in the most marginalised communities are targeted first, under the sustainable development goals agenda, and that those children and their families are given the necessary support not only to enter school, but to excel in it? Increased funding alone will not achieve that. Instead, smarter and more targeted resources, coupled with disaggregated data to measure outcomes, will be needed to ensure that the SDGs achieve their full potential and that no child is left behind. What will the Government be doing to ensure that that happens and how will we galvanise the global action that such a crucial issue deserves?

I mentioned earlier that this debate will be of interest not only to policy makers and students of international development, but to people up and down the country. The Send My Friend to School campaign has already achieved a couple of mentions in the debate, but I want to inform Members about my visit to Rathfern primary school last week. When I turned up in the playground, a long line of pupils queued up, each to give me a paper puppet they had made, setting out what they would do if they were a world leader. I have brought a puppet for the Minister—I noticed earlier that it is a female world leader, which was not intentional, but I am quite pleased that is the case. I have plenty more in my office, if the Minister wants to pop by later and collect them.

In the assembly afterwards, I was asked by a 10-year-old child why the UK spends more money on our Army—tanks and guns—than we do on helping children in poorer countries to go to school. Explaining that to a 10-year-old is probably an experience that all Members of the House should go through. The pupils in my constituency instinctively knew that education for everyone is the right thing to do. I look forward to the day when those pupils are our world leaders and when all children, irrespective of their country of birth, the colour of their skin, their gender or the wealth of the parents, receive the sort of education that we in the UK would want for our own.


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