Girls’ Education

– in the House of Commons at 12:12 pm on 5 September 2019.

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Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development 12:12, 5 September 2019

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the UK’s work to support girls’ education around the world—in particular, our work to help provide 12 years of quality education for all girls by 2030, and to leave no girl behind.

Educating girls is the tool that can address a whole host of the world’s economic and social problems. It is one of the five foundations of DFID’s wider work on gender equality, which tackles the barriers that hold women and girls back. Educating girls prevents child marriage and early pregnancy, helps women into the workforce and boosts household incomes and economic growth. Supporting education for girls and women gives them a greater voice. That voice helps them to shape their own future and advocate for changes in their own lives and, very importantly, the lives of other girls and women.

On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I met a group of teenage girls learning to code. One of them told me: “Education is a weapon that can change the world”—and she was absolutely right. Educating girls is central to achieving women’s rights and empowerment and to achieving the sustainable development goals. Nothing could be more important than giving every child the chance to make the most of their talents, ensuring that every child can reach their full potential.

We know that many girls become mothers before they finish school. The vital sexual and reproductive health services that they need are simply not available. In the Sahel, for example, child marriage and early pregnancy are endemic, stopping girls entering and staying in education. Three quarters of girls in Niger are married before their 18th birthday; more than one in four is married before the age of 15.

This situation is not acceptable. We in the UK are leading the action globally to address this injustice. Today I can update the House on the UK’s continued global leadership on girls’ education. The UK is a world leader on girls’ education. I am immensely proud to spearhead the British Government’s girls’ education campaign. That campaign—Leave No Girl Behind—was launched by our Prime Minister in 2018 when he was Foreign Secretary. The campaign leads by example. It gets girls learning, builds international political commitment and boosts global investment so that all girls have access to 12 years of quality education by 2030. The girls education campaign is an essential part of this Government’s broader endeavours to promote global Britain’s core values overseas.

Through our strong political leadership and the UK’s global diplomatic network, we have achieved many notable successes since the launch of the campaign in 2018. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018, all 53 Commonwealth members agreed to work to ensure 12 years of quality education for all girls by 2030. At the G7 in 2018, over £2.3 billion was raised for girls’ education. At the United Nations General Assembly in 2018, the leaders of the UK, Canada and France came together with key partners from the global south—Jordan, Niger and Kenya—to endorse a joint statement that focused global political attention on girls’ education. This year we have led and launched the Safe to Learn campaign, which addresses violence that prevents girls from attending and learning in school.

I hope that this demonstrates that the UK is leading across a range of programmes to build commitment and boost investment globally in our mission to ensure all girls access 12 years of quality education by 2030. Only last month, at the G7 leaders summit in Biarritz, our Prime Minister announced £90 million of new funding to provide education for children caught up in crises and conflict. Girls, who are more than twice as likely to be out of school in conflict areas, stand to benefit the most from this support. The Prime Minister also announced £30 million for affirmative finance action for Women in Africa. This will help to break down barriers to women’s economic empowerment by providing up to 10,000 women with essential business training and thousands more with better access to business loans. Unleashing the economic potential of women will boost African economies, trade and investment opportunities, and increase global prosperity. This is in the interests of the UK and African countries and will provide girls with strong female role models.

At the UN General Assembly later this month, which I will attend, girls’ education will be at the heart of the UK’s activities and interventions. All UK-funded education programmes have a focus on girls and young women. Between 2015 and 2019, the UK supported 5.8 million girls to gain a decent education. Our Girls Education Challenge is the world’s largest fund dedicated to girls’ education. It is now supporting up to 1.5 million marginalised girls in 17 countries around the world.

I am absolutely clear that girls’ education remains a key priority for this Government. We must send a strong signal that we will not give up on half of the world’s population. I strongly believe that educating a girl ultimately helps to educate a nation. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Dan Carden Dan Carden Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 12:18, 5 September 2019

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement and welcome him to his new role. He is the third Secretary of State I have faced in this position.

In its “World Development Report 2018”, the World Bank declared an international learning crisis. We know that it is too often girls who are most affected by the lack of education globally. They are twice as likely as boys to never start school. Given these figures, we welcome the Secretary of State’s focus on education, and girls’ education in particular.

While, like the Government, we recognise that the benefits of girls’ education reach far beyond the individual girl, does the Secretary of State agree that education is first and foremost a basic human right? That is why the Labour party is committed to a rights-based approach to education.

Last month, I visited Kenya and saw for myself the huge educational needs in that country. I visited state schools and low-fee private schools, meeting teachers, pupils, parents and civil society groups, and one thing was clear when it came to education: the people I met there wanted exactly the same things that my constituents in Liverpool want—decent, publicly funded schooling for their children. I am concerned about the growing support that DFID is providing to expanding private education in the global south, because we know that fee-paying private schools never reach the most marginalised children. We know from our own experience in the UK that universal public systems of education are the only way to reach all children. The International Development Committee has said that DFID’s support for private education is “controversial”. The last Independent Commission for Aid Impact assessment of DFID’s work to support the most marginalised girls found that DFID is “falling short” of its ambitions to educate the poorest and most vulnerable girls. One reason for that was a lack of influence by DFID on public Government-run education programmes.

In Kenya, I heard some worrying stories from parents and teachers about their experience with so-called low-fee private schools, and one chain of schools in particular: Bridge International Academies. Parents told me how they had been tricked into believing that their kids would benefit from scholarships, leaving them unable to pay fees and their kids missing chunks of schooling as a result. I met the head of the Kenya National Union of Teachers to discuss education in the country, and he had a very clear message: he wanted the UK to stop using aid money to privatise his country’s education system.

In August last year, Oxfam published its review of a DFID-funded education public-private partnership in Pakistan. It found that schools were failing to reach the most marginalised, relying on very low wages and poor employment practices. In February this year, the Send My Friend to School coalition released a report calling for DFID to ensure that its aid spending goes towards supporting education that is provided universally and is available free at the point of use. In April, a report from the National Education Union and Global Justice Now claimed that UK aid is being used to push an ideological agenda to expand fee-paying private education around the world.

Labour knows the importance of publicly delivered public services. That is why we will set up a new unit for public services within DFID that will champion education as a human right and a public good. Will the Secretary of State listen to the sector, to the unions and to teacher and campaign groups in the UK and the global south, who say that education is a universal right guaranteed by the state and not a market to make profits from? Will he shift his Department’s focus on education towards a human rights-based approach, so that all girls get the education they are entitled to?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response. We are at a time when there is an enormous amount of rancour in this House, and debates are perhaps not as good-natured as you would like, Mr Speaker, but this is an area on which I think we can all agree across the House. Education matters for every child, whether in our country or the developing world. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased at the reaffirmation yesterday of the 0.7% commitment in the Chancellor’s spending review statement.

I very much share the hon. Gentleman’s view that the work we do in developing countries is incredibly important. He talked about his visit to Kenya. I was in Nigeria recently to see the work we have done in Kaduna state, working with the state—the public sector—to ensure that thousands of teachers are retrained appropriately. I visited a school where the school roll was failing only a couple of years ago—it was down to 400—but it is almost double now, and over half the children there are young girls. I had an opportunity to talk to them, and they were incredibly enthusiastic and positive, not just about their own future but about their own country. That is because of the great education they are getting.

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said, but I want to respond to his point about where DFID’s funding goes. I want to make it clear that over 95% of my Department’s education funding goes to the public sector to support improvements in education outcomes. That is right and proper. We are working across the developing world with countries and their education ministries to provide support. Of course, where state provision is weak or non-existent, it is right that we work with non-state providers, including paid-for schools, to provide education to children who would otherwise get none, and we continue to work with a range of education partners to ensure the best results and value for money.

The hon. Gentleman talked about ideology. There is one education ideology that I suspect we share, which is that it is vital that every child gets the right level of education. We are both committed to ensuring 12 years of education for every girl across the world.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

In this difficult week, it is wonderful to hear the Secretary of State shine a spotlight on this incredibly valuable and important part of what the UK does. It is such good value for money. Can he commit to exploring whether the UK could be spending a greater share of our overall aid budget in this incredibly valuable area?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

May I first pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who did so much work in this area during her time in government? I remember having conversations with her about this issue, which she is passionate about. We spend around £1 billion a year on education, in official development assistance, and it will fluctuate over the years. It is important that we also focus on outcomes, but I will take on board what she said about our trying to do even more in this area.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development)

I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place; he will be the fourth in little over two years. Sustainable development goal 4 included a new agenda for global education, vowing to

“ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

I fully welcome this commitment of UK aid to helping every girl to get an education. As we know, education can be the most valuable tool in the fight against global poverty, yet too many girls remain without access. In sub-Saharan Africa, 52.2 million girls of primary and secondary school age are out of school.

The education of women and girls must be made a priority in all educational international development programmes, and such programmes must explicitly address complex factors that keep girls out of education. Girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school if they live in conflict areas, and young women living in conflict are nearly 90% percent more likely to be out of secondary school than those in other countries.

Education is a long-term challenge and one that is easily disrupted. Humanitarian crises are becoming more protracted, and one major challenge is coming up with a long-term solution to the children whose education is disrupted by this. Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees published a report that found that, of the 7.1 million school-age refugee children around the world, more than half do not go to school. With one third of the £90 million funding earmarked for those living through the world’s forgotten crises, I ask: what proportion will be spent on those girls who have fled conflict but have been left without an education due to displacement?

Furthermore, the Government’s programmes to help women in developing countries overwhelmingly focus on children—those under about 10—and adult women, and there is a gap that adolescent and teenage girls can fall through, leaving them out of programmes to get them into education and keep them safe from sexual violence. Can the Secretary of State tell me how he plans to address that specific age group?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

I am delighted that, once again, we have a shared view about the importance of girls’ education. The hon. Gentleman is right that education is a long-term challenge. He talks about the UK’s commitment. The Prime Minister was absolutely committed to the 12 years of education for girls during his time at the Foreign Office—in fact, he launched our work on this—and he is totally committed now, so I think the hon. Gentleman will find that this is a key area of focus for us.

I also share the hon. Gentleman’s view that we have too many children across the world who are not in education. The latest figures suggest that over 260 million children, of whom about 130 million are girls, are not in education, and that is not good enough.

The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about the £90 million commitment that the Prime Minister has made for educational emergencies. I can inform him that this includes £85 million for Education Cannot Wait, which will support 600,000 children, including girls, in emergencies. I hope he will appreciate that we are absolutely focused on helping children across the world, with this particular money very much focused on those living in emergency areas.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Across the developing world, the main obstacle to girls being in education is the lack of running water, sanitation and toilet facilities. My right hon. Friend has recently visited Africa, including Nigeria. Ten per cent. of the girls in the world are not in education. What more can we do to invest in this area so that we can provide the facilities for girls to have education?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

My hon. Friend raises a really important point, which is that basic sanitation and the availability of clean water are vital. I saw one of the projects in Ethiopia that has been funded through DFID, and I had an opportunity to meet some of those who are benefiting from it. I spoke to a lady who previously spent five hours a day getting water for her children, and now she is able to spend that time working, raising money to educate her kids.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment to this important role in Government. I welcome very warmly both his statement and the commitment the UK made at the G7 to Education Cannot Wait. Clearly, we need other donors to rise to the challenge in the way the UK has. What will he be doing over the next few weeks to ensure that the full replenishment of Education Cannot Wait is achieved, so that children living as refugees get the education that they deserve?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but also for the very fine work he does in leading his International Development Committee. We have always had a very good relationship and I very much hope that that will continue.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to be doing even more in terms of promoting not just the UK but others to corral in finance into this area. I talked in the statement about the amount of money that was corralled in last year at UNGA. As I have said, girls’ education will be a key focus of the work we will do at this year’s General Assembly.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

G. K. Chesterton said:

“Education is simply the soul of society as it passes from one generation to the next.”

The work we do in this country will both be exported and inspire others worldwide. So will the Secretary of State look at girls studying STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and particularly going into engineering in this country? Chi Onwurah and I worked on this when I was in government. It will inspire others. It will nourish our society, as we nurture the taste and talents of young women with a practical, vocational and technical bent.

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

My right hon. Friend raises a very important point. Of course, studying STEM subjects is really important in the UK, but also abroad. He showered me with a quote. May I give him one back from a young lady I met who is learning to code as a result of funding provided by DFID? This was when I met a group of young people in Nigeria. She said:

“Education is a weapon that can change the world.”

That is what young women in developing countries believe, and we are providing such support to help them to build better futures.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Industrial Strategy)

As chair of the all-party group on Africa and of the all-party group on diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and maths, I wholly welcome this emphasis on women and education, just as I condemn the Prime Minister’s past remarks when he implied that women went into higher education to find husbands. As well as the emphasis on women in STEM, will the Secretary of State say what he is doing to ensure that period poverty is not a barrier to continued attendance at schools in developing countries, an issue that was investigated by the all-party group on Africa ?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

I do not want to introduce a discordant note into the statement, as we are in agreement on much of this, but I would just point out that the Prime Minister, when he was the Foreign Secretary, was absolutely behind launching the 12 years of education for every girl campaign, so I would say it is slightly churlish for the hon. Lady to raise the points she has. However, on the wider point about family planning, I agree that work needs to be done. I saw some of the work that we are doing during my visit to Nigeria, and we will continue to work on that. If she has particular ideas, I would welcome her coming to have a discussion with me.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in that I recently went on a visit to New York. In New York, I met Yasmine Sherif, the director of Education Cannot Wait, a global fund established by the UK in 2016, which aims to ensure that children in conflict zones—some of the most vulnerable children in the world—receive an education. What is the Secretary of State doing to support that vital organisation?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

My hon. Friend raises an important point. She talks about Yasmine, whom she met, and who I suspect, like her, is a role model and a champion for young girls—she in her constituency and Yasmine in other areas. On support, as I have pointed out, a large element of the £90 million—£85 million—is going to Education Cannot Wait. I agree with her that this is an incredibly important programme to support.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Labour, Rotherham

Female genital mutilation, child sexual exploitation, child marriage and child trafficking all cause girls to drop out of school. DFID and the British Council have been excellent at changing culture abroad. Can the Secretary of State say how we can learn those lessons and bring those lessons to the UK so that we can change our culture here?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

First, I agree with the hon. Lady that education is absolutely vital because we know that, for every girl who goes to secondary school, infant mortality is cut in half. About 12 million children would escape stunting due to malnutrition if every girl went to secondary school, and we would see significantly higher GDP growth across the world. Of course, we share any learnings that we have across Government, and we will continue to do so.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

In how many third-world countries are girls like Malala at risk of attack or assassination, and do we have any programmes to assist the Governments in those countries to protect them?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

I think the simple answer is too many, but the wider work that DFID does on humanitarian support and security clearly aids the objective of making sure that children—girls—are able to go to school safely and live in an environment where they feel that they will not be threatened if they go to school.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I welcome the Secretary of State and this G7 initiative. Does he accept that this is not just about Governments? Why do we not involve more legislators around the world, working together and using the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to share good practice and ideas? I chair the World Health Organisation global legislators group to cut road deaths, which is a very good model. Can some of us, on an all-party basis, come to talk to him? This is a great campaign and we should be helping legislators around the world to improve conditions for girls.

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

As the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues in the House will know, in all my previous roles, I have, I hope, been very open to having discussions and, indeed, learning from colleagues who may have much more detailed knowledge built up over many years, so I would welcome an opportunity to sit down with him and other colleagues.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

Forty years ago, when I was a trustee of Christian Aid, we knew that educating a girl could break cycles of poverty in one generation and could also lead to later marriage, fewer children, more prosperity and better health. Can the Secretary of State say now, or in a later statement, how the increase in maths provision for these girls around the world has been improving, thanks to our efforts?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work over many years in this area? He has highlighted one of the organisations he has been involved in. The support we have provided over the last four years has meant that 5.8 million more girls are getting a decent education and it is vital that we continue this work.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I welcome this statement. When I go on “Send My Friend to School” visits in Chester, girls’ education is always the No. 1 issue raised with me by British schoolchildren. However, will the Secretary of State confirm that, if we do not get right nutrition and healthcare as part as the package that supports education, that could damage education for girls? It is about getting the whole picture right.

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

The hon. Gentleman raises a vital point, and we need a holistic approach to our work. I believe that is very much what DFID does as a Department.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments: no girl or young woman should be denied access to education, and I am proud that we are funding schemes at home and abroad. Will he confirm that he is prioritising girls and young women in conflict zones, as well as those in overseas territories and our Commonwealth partners who have suffered from natural disasters?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for the work he does locally in championing education in his constituency. As I set out, the vast majority of the £90 million that the Prime Minister announced at the G7 is for conflict zones and to help those in Syria and areas such as Cox’s Bazar. We will continue to focus on that.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

A third of girls in Yemen are reported to be married before their 18th birthday and 9% are married before they are 15. What is the Minister doing to ensure that those girls in Yemen in a conflict zone are getting an education and what will he do to end conflict?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

As the hon. Lady will know, we do a wider piece of work across Government to end conflict, working with our partners internationally. For example, around £3 billion has been put into a UK programme on Syria. Clearly, however, we must keep focusing on these areas. It is important that, if children are caught up in these areas, they continue to receive basic education and we are focused on that.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian

I welcome the Secretary of State to his position. Will he confirm that good practices such as the “Send My Friend to School” initiative are important in exploiting the messaging on this, as is the mental health of girls involved in education? What will the Government do to continue to support the mental health of young women in their education?

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Secretary of State for International Development

Mental health is of course an important issue, which has risen up the agenda over a number of years. The Government are doing their part through the Departments of Health and Social Care and of Education and, where DFID is able to offer support, it will do so.