UN International Day of Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:48 pm on 28th January 2021.

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Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 4:48 pm, 28th January 2021

I will endeavour to follow one or other of the clocks, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I hope I will get it right, safe in the knowledge that if I do not, you will gently nudge me in the right direction.

I would like to start by saying what an honour it has been to sit in this debate to mark the UN International Day of Education. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin for securing this debate, and I pay tribute to her for her exceptional work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on global education and in her previous role as a Minister. I also thank the many Members who have contributed to today’s debate. I am conscious that many more wanted to contribute but were unable to get in. I know from listening to the contributions that people spoke with a real passion for education and approached it from many different angles, both domestically and internationally.

In any year, the UN International Day of Education is an important moment to celebrate the hard work and dedication of teachers, lecturers and tutors all around the world. But this year, after 12 months when they have had to adapt like never before, it is particularly important that we pay tribute to the resilience, ingenuity and dedication that teachers have shown throughout the pandemic. I think of those around the world and those closer to home, and even those in my constituency of Aldridge-Brownhills, too.

Education is the centrepiece of our international development work, because it transforms lives and transforms societies. That is why we are committed to UN sustainable development goal 4 on quality education and to our manifesto pledge to stand up for the right of every girl to 12 years of quality education. Countries that provide their children with the springboard of education will be more prosperous and stable, which over time helps to maximise the opportunities for Britain abroad and minimises the number of threats that we face from abroad.

The challenge, however, is huge. Some have estimated that, even before the pandemic, only one in 10 children in low-income countries was able to read a simple story by the age of 10. For the sake of this generation and generations to come, the international community needs to redouble its efforts. As a demonstration of the political and strategic clout that we want to bring to our work, the Prime Minister recently appointed my hon. Friend Mrs Grant as the UK’s special envoy on girls’ education. We heard her speaking in the Chamber earlier, and I know she will be a real advocate and a real champion for this. We are already working together to improve the lives of millions of girls, and benefiting from the breadth of her experience in championing gender equality and protecting women and children.

It is abundantly clear that the covid pandemic has set back educational progress around the world. At the height of the pandemic, more than 1.6 billion children were out of school. Today, children in more than 30 countries are navigating nationwide school closures. Across the globe, this is hitting the poorest and most marginal children the hardest. Millions of children in the most vulnerable places may never return to school, and this will inflict long-term harm that will also damage communities and national economies.

As if this were not enough, girls are also experiencing a shadow pandemic. As we have heard in some of the contributions this afternoon, when girls do not attend school, they are more vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse, as well as early child marriage and forced labour. So in response to covid-19, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has been supporting some of the most fragile education systems. In 20 countries with the greatest gender disparities, we are working to make sure that girls are not disproportionately impacted. For example, in Bangladesh, we have developed and delivered distance learning to almost 700,000 children through radio and mobile phones; in South Sudan, we are paying school and re-enrolment fees and helping schools to provide a covid-safe teaching environment; and in Sierra Leone, we are supporting young women to become qualified teachers and run distance learning study groups.

As hon. Members know, 2021 is a year of international leadership for the UK, and strengthening the delivery of quality education around the world is an important part of our agenda. We are putting girls’ education at the core of our G7 presidency. Alongside Kenya, we are co-hosting the Global Partnership for Education replenishment summit here in the UK this summer, and we will be hosting COP26 in Glasgow, which is a further opportunity to make a real difference for girls who are disproportionately impacted by the devastating effects of climate change, but whose leadership is vital in tackling the crisis. We will seek to mobilise investment and make sure that funding is spent most effectively. We will rally the international community around two global targets: first, to increase the number of girls around the world who go to primary or secondary school by 40 million; and, secondly, to increase the proportion of 10-year-old girls able to read by one third. These are ambitious targets, as is the sustainable development goal to ensure an inclusive and equitable quality education for all, but 2021 offers renewed hope: the chance to get children and teachers back to the classroom; the chance to reinvigorate the international community under our leadership; and the chance to get global education standards moving in the right direction. That is exactly what this Government are working for.

I would like to touch on as many of the specific questions that were raised by hon. Members in the debate as possible. There were several comments and questions around funding, which I will come on to, and around gender and violence against women and girls. Let me see how far I can get in the time that I have.

Many hon. Members asked about the impact of the 0.5%. As most Members are aware, due to the severe impact of the pandemic on our economy, we have had to take the very tough decision to spend 0.5% of our national income on official development assistance rather than the usual 0.7%. However, girls’ education will remain a priority for UK aid.

On the Global Partnership for Education replenishment, the UK, as co-hosts of the replenishment, will use all the levers at our disposal to secure a successful GPE replenishment. This includes our own pledge to the fund. Of course, I am unable to commit to what that will be, but the details will be decided by the Foreign Secretary and announced in due course.

Hon. Members also raised the issue of violence against women and girls, which I know we take very seriously in this place. The Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative is still a major priority for the Government, alongside girls’ education. It will play a part in our G7 presidency priorities as well as the work we do with the presidency of the UN Security Council.

Covid-19 has clearly created big challenges for girls out of education and for getting them back to school. As we have heard today, there are many challenges that link into that. We have heard about the importance of the WASH agenda. We have heard about the challenges that girls also face in not just accessing learning, but staying safe in schools.

Let me close by saying that we have set out very ambitious global goals to see that all girls access school and learn: 40 million more girls into school by 2025; and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10 in developing countries. We are developing a girls’ education action plan to set out how we will be doing that. I hope the House can get behind us in supporting all the work we are doing in 2021 to support girls’ education.