WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO EDUCATE ALL THE WORLD’S CHILDREN?
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard writes about why investing in education is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard has taken her passion for education international. As chair of the Global Partnership for Education, she recently teamed up with music icon Rihanna to visit Malawi and fight for more than 260 million children worldwide who aren’t in school and hundreds of millions more who are barely able to read or write. Here, Ms Gillard writes about why investing in education is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.
Srei, a young Cambodian third grader from Takéo province, often misses school because she has to help her mother with the cows. She is in the afternoon shift at her primary school, walking almost two kilometres with her siblings in the heat, wearing a school uniform covered in holes. She is one of millions of girls around the world who come from a disadvantaged family and drop out of school somewhere along the way – simply because of poverty.
To many who live in developed countries like Australia, it is unsettling to grapple with the truth that getting a basic education is not a given for every child, especially not for children who come from poor families, for girls or for the growing number of school-age youth whose once-in-alifetime opportunity for learning is shattered by a humanitarian disaster or raging conflict.
For these and other reasons, millions of children worldwide barely complete primary school and more than 260 million children and youth – about 11 times the total population of Australia – aren’t in school at all.
Developing countries around the world understand that education is essential to the wellbeing of their citizens and the future of their societies. Often they are putting more of their own resources into education, but lack enough funding and technical infrastructure to deliver quality education to all their children, particularly the poorest and most remote.
The result is that hundreds of millions of young people are left behind, never able to acquire the skills they need to break out of poverty, become a contributing part of their society, and compete successfully in an increasingly globalised, technologically driven world. Their countries are deprived of the human talent essential to building economically dynamic, stable and sustainable societies.
When children miss out on school, we all end up feeling the impact. Inequality of opportunity drives discontent and conflict, which in turn can spill over national and regional borders.
Our mission at Global Partnership for Education (GPE) is to confront this enormous problem and help solve it. I am proud to be GPE’s chair and delighted superstar Rihanna is our global ambassador, a role she has taken on to improve the education of young people all over the world.
To see with our own eyes what it takes to educate some of the poorest children on earth, Rihanna and I visited Malawi. Even though Malawi passed a law in 1994 mandating free universal education, schools are overcrowded, there are not enough qualified teachers and drop-out rates are high.
Most people know Rihanna for her mega hits and glamorous lifestyle, but beneath the celebrity image lies a woman deeply passionate about giving girls the same opportunities as boys. She relates personally to the struggles that poor families face based on her own family background in Barbados. As she said on our trip: “It’s one thing to read statistics, but I want to see it first-hand and find out all that can be done, and where to start first.”
Malawi gave us such a warm welcome and we were able to meet with students and teachers in several schools. In Muzu, in the Lilongwe Rural West district, we joined Ms Makuwira’s maths class and Rihanna sang
Pamchenga with the children, a popular Chichewa song all Malawians are taught to help them learn the alphabet.
My admiration for the work of teachers grew even more seeing Ms Makuwira teach more than 120 first graders every day. They sit on the floor and bring bottle caps from home to use as aids for counting exercises in maths class.
My admiration grew for Rihanna, too. Not content with just watching and learning, she set out to make a practical difference by painting a classroom and making bricks for school construction. Instead of strutting a stage looking dazzling, Rihanna was casually dressed, felt hot and was muddy. Yet she seemed in her element, happy to be making a difference.
The life of a major celebrity is so different to our own – fashion shows, concerts, paparazzi, a personal trainer, your own chef – it must be easy to get carried away by all the hype. But what struck me about Rihanna was how humble and easygoing she is. She never pretended to be an expert in education, rather, she treated everyone she met with respect and easily struck up conversations with them because she was so hungry to see the world through their eyes.
And the children loved her. At the Lilongwe Girls Secondary School, hundreds of teenage girls squealed with delight when they saw her. They knew and loved Rihanna and her music. Watching her being mobbed, I thought how truly connected our world is. These girls are poor but they know about the world beyond Malawi. They know that other children don’t need to worry about going hungry, go to great schools and have choices and opportunity as they live their lives. These Malawi schoolgirls want that too.
At GPE we are trying to bring the hope that comes with a great education to 65 countries, including Malawi. We are supporting these nations to plan and implement long-term efforts to strengthen their education systems. And we are making strong progress, including in our region of the world.
For example, with GPE support Cambodia is now well on its way to enrolling more than half of its children aged three to five years – about 122,000 and counting – in preschool in seven provinces around the country. And GPE funded the vision screening program, which has benefited from advocacy efforts by Australian organisations including the Fred Hollows Foundation. It has reached many thousands of Cambodian children and transformed many lives.
Since 2010, GPE has also helped Papua New Guinea rebuild a basic education infrastructure that had been battered by years of unrest. Through programs such as the READ PNG, for instance, hundreds of thousands of children now have the reading skills they need for their lifelong learning journey.
GPE is currently appealing to donor countries to pledge $US2 billion per year by 2020 to support our work.
With those funds, GPE can help drive improved quality and access to education for as many as 870 million children and youth.
Australia has historically been a strong and committed member of GPE and generous supporter of investment in education, contributing A$140 million between 2015 and 2018. Now we need the government to make a new pledge and increase support.
Funding education is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. Our lives – even in developed countries like Australia – are increasingly affected by what happens elsewhere. By investing in education not only will the lives of hundreds of millions of children around the world improve, but we will also be taking a big step closer to building a more prosperous and stable world for future generations.
You can help by following Rihanna’s lead and take a stand on the importance of education: write to your local member and make a noise on social media or write to the Prime Minister or Foreign Minister. In our democracy, every voice counts. Trust me – when people start demanding change, leaders listen! Please think about Srei, think about the kids who clustered around Rihanna, and take action.
RIHANNA, ABOVE, AND WITH JUILA GILLARD, BELOW, MEETING CHILDREN, PARENTS AND TEACHERS AT A SCHOOL IN MALAWI.