I begin by congratulating Harriett Baldwin on securing this debate. I pay tribute to her excellent work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on global education.
Benjamin Franklin said:
“An investment in knowledge pays best interest.”
We know that, even before the pandemic, vast educational inequality existed. In the world’s poorest countries, nine out of 10 children were unable to read a basic book by the age of 10. The covid-19 pandemic and measures taken to contain it have highlighted and exacerbated that inequality around the world. Communities around the world are struggling, and this virus continues to destroy lives, livelihoods and opportunities.
Members rightly highlighted that the covid-19 pandemic has triggered a global educational crisis and raised that this educational deficit is not new. My hon. Friend Sarah Champion spoke about the equalities goal. I commend her work as Chair of the International Development Committee on overseas development assistance. My hon. Friend Taiwo Owatemi talked about the importance of educating girls, because it lifts the whole country, which my hon. Friend Kim Johnson observed the importance of. My hon. Friend Fleur Anderson talked about the importance of clean water. I know that she speaks with expertise, as somebody who worked in the aid sector before coming into the House. Mr Carmichael also argued for the importance of education.
During the first wave of the pandemic, 1.6 billion children in almost 200 countries suffered educational disruption. Save the Children reports that nearly 200 million children continue to be out of education. We know the importance of washing our hands to stop the spread of deadly viruses such as covid, yet globally, half of all schools do not have soap and water available to students. Will the Minister tell us what her Department is doing to rectify this situation?
Nationally, the Government’s record throughout the pandemic, I have to say, has been shambolic. We are still waiting for a clear path to schools opening safely. The UK has an important role to play in pushing global co-operation to ensure that students are able to return safely to school as quickly as possible. However, does the Minister find it difficult speaking with international counterparts, given the abject failure of the Secretary of State for Education, who has lurched from one failure to the next?
Many marginalised children rely on school meals, as well as health services and menstrual hygiene products. School closures have deprived 370 million of the most vulnerable children of their daily school meal. Does the Minister agree that these children deserve a nutritious diet? Almost half a billion children worldwide have not been able to access remote learning while schools have been closed. Where it is accessible, it is not given to girls. The Malala Fund estimates that 20 million secondary school-age girls in poorer communities could be out of school after the pandemic has ended.
We know that investment in girls’ education will suffer. However, proper investment in girls’ education can lead to global equality, which can then help nations to prepare for the effects of climate crisis as well.
This pandemic has threatened to turn the clock back on gender equality. We know that girls are far more likely to be kept out of school, take on burdens of care and forced into early marriages or domestic duties. Will the Minister make it clear that our Government will take action to tackle the structural causes of gender inequality, through the G7 later this year? What steps is she taking to overcome the causes, not just the symptoms? What contribution will her Government make to the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education?
We are aware that the Minister and her Department are currently developing the girls education plan. What assessment has she made of the risk that the narrow targets for the girls education plan, announced in November last year, would lead to box-ticking programmes that do not genuinely tackle the multiple barriers that girls face in getting quality education? How will she ensure that the barriers for girls, teenagers and young women are all considered and that access is widened?
We have heard over and again that the Prime Minister is committed to advancing girls’ access to education, yet he has decided to signal the UK’s retreat from the world stage by scrapping a world-renowned Department in the middle of a pandemic, when that Department should have been rightly focusing on saving lives. He also refused to disclose the details of the cuts to lifesaving and lifechanging aid programmes. It appears that the slashing of the aid budget was purely politically motivated.
Unless swift action is taken, the current cut to the aid budget will put those commitments at risk at a time when poor countries that are already suffering are going to suffer even more. In fact, last year the Government cut a project that supports 200,000 young people in Rwanda and which had led to a reduction in teenage pregnancy and sexual violence. Does the Minister agree that cancelling a project that invests in the future of Rwandan girls is totally at odds with the Prime Minister’s stated commitment to girls’ education? Was that a mistake, or was it a lack of oversight and strategic vision within this newly created Department? Given the state of global education and the clear need for extra support, how much official development assistance will be spent on education in 2021, and how will it compare with 2019 and 2020?
Finally, what signal does the Minister think the Government’s bluff and bluster and cuts in aid, contradicted by sanctions, sends to our allies, such as President Biden?