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UN International Day of Education

Volume 688: debated on Thursday 28 January 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UN International Day of Education.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling this important debate so close to the United Nations International Day of Education. After today’s moving debate on Holocaust Memorial Day, I add my tributes to the Holocaust Educational Trust for its crucial work in taking sixth formers to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. The visit I undertook with students from Hanley Castle High School will remain forever etched in my memory and, importantly, in their young memories. It is vital that such work continues.

I never thought that we would be marking UN International Day of Education at a time when our schools in the UK are closed to so many children. I share the Government’s aspiration to reopen our schools as soon as possible, and would welcome an even earlier date than 8 March, by reopening classes in a staged way, even for part of the day, with reception to year 2 back first, and gradually adding additional classes. Let us also make the most of fresh air and exercise, like the wonderful Forest Schools that so many of the West Worcestershire primary schools enjoy. I welcome the important investment that the Government are making in extra support and catch-up tuition, to help each child make the most of their potential.

Around the world, even before the pandemic, some 258 million children and adolescents were out of school. The majority of them were girls. More than half of 10-year-olds in low and middle-income countries were not learning even to read a simple text. As a result of the pandemic, 1.3 billion children around the world have seen their schools close at some point in the past 12 months. Let me quote:

“Twelve years of full-time education is not the only answer to the world’s problems. It is not a panacea, but it is not far short.”

Those are not my words; those are the words of our Prime Minister when he was Foreign Secretary. He knows that in many of the poorest, most conflict-torn countries, it is mainly girls who drop out of school early, who lag behind boys in literacy levels, and who have children when they too are still children. The Prime Minister continued:

“Female education is the universal spanner,”.

He said it is the “Swiss army knife” that helps tackle so many of the world’s problems, and that

“the best and biggest thing that we can do for the world, is to make sure that every girl gets 12 years of full-time education.”

It is wonderful as we begin 2021 and the UK presides over the G7 that girls’ education has made it on to the agenda. My wonderful colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), has been appointed the Prime Minister’s envoy. The UK’s G7 goal was to secure a commitment to getting 40 million more girls into education and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10. Here in the UK we are rightly concerned about the importance of laptops for remote education, but we should also not forget the importance of low-tech and simple things, such as exercise books, pencils, chalk, and text books, as well as older technology such as radio, for children around the world who are also having to undergo remote education.

It is wonderful that later in 2021, the UK and Kenya have agreed to co-host the replenishment of the global partnership for education, which is the only multilateral organisation that crowds in funding from richer countries to help education budgets in very poor countries. I wholly endorse the leadership that the Prime Minister and the Government are showing on education globally. A better educated world will be a healthier, more peaceful and more prosperous one, and that surely benefits us all. But that leadership will need bolstering with money from the UK aid budget.

The Minister will know that I oppose the temporary reduction of the overseas development assistance target, as it not only breaks our manifesto commitment, but will mean that there is less money available to tackle hunger, deliver vaccines, educate children in poor countries and make sure they have clean water. I welcome the commitment that the UK has made to the Vaccine Alliance, and the commitment that we have made to doubling international climate finance, but can the Minister reassure the House today that the cut to the aid budget is not going to affect the money spent on education for the world’s poorest children? Will our contribution to the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education be at least as generous and ambitious as before? Will as many girls as before be helped to remain in school through projects such as the Girls’ Education Challenge? Will she consider launching more UK Aid Match projects so that we can all donate more and have it matched by UK aid? What progress is she making as Minister for the European Neighbourhood and the Americas in encouraging our friends in the US to step up and spend more on global education under the new Biden Administration?

With new vaccines coming on line, we are starting the process of building back better after this awful pandemic, and of levelling up our own country as we recover. We also have a key role to play in building back and levelling up the world by ensuring that every child—both in our country and around the world—gets a quality education, no matter how poor the country into which they are born. That will be the most important way in which we can build a stronger, more resilient and healthier world for our children.

Members will be aware that there is to be a time limit of three minutes per speech for Back Benchers. I know that that is very short, but I must explain that if everybody takes three minutes, not everyone who is on the list will get in. If Members were able to take just a little bit less than three minutes and share out the time equally, everybody would have the chance to speak.

Today I will focus on the sustainable development goals, specifically SDG 4 on global education and SDG 5 on gender equality.

Even before the pandemic, 258 million children were out of school, including one in two children with disabilities, more than half of school-age refugee children and 75 million children whose education was disrupted by humanitarian crises. Covid-19 has obviously made everything so much worse. This week, the International Development Committee released a report on the secondary impacts of covid-19, highlighting a global education crisis. With schools shut down and teaching disrupted, decades of progress are at risk. Some 1.6 billion children and young people are suffering educational disruption and are unable to access their basic rights. Over 460 million children are unable to access remote learning while out of school. In addition, as livelihoods are lost, informal economies shrink and remittances from abroad plummet, struggling families are left unable to pay the school fees required in many schools. Unsurprisingly, all this impacts most on the children who are already marginalised: refugees, the internally displaced, children with disabilities, and girls.

This is a gendered crisis. Girls of secondary school age are far less likely to return than boys when the schools reopen. That is already against the backdrop of young women accounting for 59% of the total illiterate youth population. Online and remote learning is insufficient to reach all children during lockdown, as many do not have internet access or mobiles. Covid-19 has heightened economic pressure on family finances, with children forced into child marriage and child labour to help support their families. It increases violence and sexual exploitation, leaving children, particularly girls, to drop out of school permanently—and there are strong links between girls leaving education and subsequent increases in trafficking and exploitation.

With both the presidency of the G7 and the Global Partnership for Education, the Government have two major opportunities to galvanise action and remedy stalled progress towards SDGs 4 and 5. The Government made strong educational pledges before the cuts were announced. I ask the Minister: do those pledges still stand? The UK has still not pledged a penny to the Global Partnership for Education. The Government must pledge big and pledge now. The UK spends a paltry 5.6% of aid on education, and in 2018 just 0.3% was spent on ending violence against women and girls. I commend the Government’s intent on girls’ education, but their aim can only be achieved by increasing gender equality and real financial investment.

I am hugely honoured to be the UK’s special envoy for girls’ education, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for her very kind words. My role is to champion globally the Prime Minister’s message that providing every girl on the planet with 12 years’ quality education is the best way of tackling many of the problems facing the world today. Investing in girls’ education is a game changer. A child with a mother who can read is 50% more likely to live beyond the age of five, twice as likely to attend school themselves, and 50% more likely to be immunised. Girls’ education is therefore vital for women and girls, who make up 51% of the population, but it is also vital to levelling up society and developing economies and nations.

Even before covid-19, the world was facing a learning crisis. Tragically, the pandemic has become one of the biggest educational disruptors in our history, affecting 1.6 billion children at its peak in 2020. Many of these children are girls, and many of them will never return to school, or even start school, lowering their chances of future employment and decent livelihoods. To avert this tragedy, we must up our game globally and respond. For the UK, this has begun with leadership from the very top. Our Prime Minister has put 12 years’ quality education for every girl at the very heart of our G7 presidency. Our Foreign Secretary has agreed global targets that include getting one third more girls reading by the age of 10 and 40 million more girls in primary and secondary school by 2025. This year, too, the UK will co-host with Kenya the financing summit for the Global Partnership for Education, working hard with our partners to get the replenishment commitments needed for girls’ education for the next five years.

I know that the weight of the challenge regarding girls’ education is very significant, but our ability to make a change in the world, if we work together, should never be underestimated. The international community must, however, adopt a more ambitious and co-ordinated approach to girls’ education. There needs to be more focus on quality, and on secondary education. We must also listen more carefully to what girls and young women say about what they want and need. Vitally, global leaders need to speak out much more, as our Prime Minister has done, on the importance of educating girls, explaining all the advantages for girls and women, their children, their families, their communities and their nations. Together, if we can make this happen—and I believe we can—the human race will be in a much, much better place.

I apologise to the House and to the hon. Lady; the clocks are simply not working. In case it looks strange, I should tell the House that I have decided to work from my own clock. We will proceed from there.

It is right that there is a recognised day to highlight the importance of education internationally. As a former teacher of 23 years’ standing, I am deeply saddened by the current closure of our schools during this pandemic, although I understand why it is necessary. I genuinely feel for all the pupils who have had their learning disrupted. The socialisation that school so uniquely and comprehensively allows them is currently beyond them. Covid has disrupted the education of 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries, and it is very damaging that they are all being denied their right to quality, safe and inclusive education.

I am sure we all welcomed the UN 2030 agenda for sustainable development, which was adopted by UN member states in 2015 and recognises the importance of education globally, but the goals must be delivered. Giving girls access to schooling is a central part of eradicating global poverty. Better-educated women tend to be healthier, participate more in formal labour markets, have fewer children and marry at a later age. Better-educated women tend to be more informed about nutrition and healthcare, and their children are usually healthier, too. Combined, they are more likely to help to lift countries and communities out of poverty.

Undoubtedly, educating girls strengthens economies and reduces inequality. It contributes to more stable, resilient societies that give all individuals, including men and boys, the opportunity to fulfil their potential. For this to happen, girls must feel safe in schools, which is why the safe schools declaration is so important. Too often, girls in developing countries face barriers to education caused by poverty, cultural norms, poor infrastructure and the threat of violence, so international collaborations between Governments, civil society and a whole range of agencies should and must do better to help to mitigate and overcome these challenges, and the UK aid budget must reflect how important that is.

Even in the UK, schools can be an outlet through which to access richer cultural experiences through literature, poetry and debate, an escape from poverty and an opportunity to work for a better life. That is certainly what school offered me, and so many others. Today, let us celebrate the transformative power of education and vow to ensure that we will do all we can to make sure that the reach of education is truly global, so that we can change the lives of all children—boys and girls—for the better.

We cannot hear Katherine Fletcher. I apologise to the hon. Lady; we will pause and come back to her when we can. Let us go to Taiwo Owatemi in Coventry North West.

I am thrilled to be able to commemorate this special day, and extend my thanks to the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for securing this debate.

“A quality education has the power to transform societies in a single generation; provide children with the protection they need from the hazards of poverty, labour exploitation and disease; and give them the knowledge, skills and confidence to reach their full potential.”

Those were the words of Audrey Hepburn, a very successful actress and even greater humanitarian who was a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. Those words ring particularly true: education is the key to wider possibilities for young people all around the world.

As one of the sustainable development goals, quality education for all is important for peace, prosperity and global development. Last year, the coronavirus pandemic dealt a crippling blow to young people’s education, and we are currently experiencing a global education crisis. Young people in the United Kingdom have had their education disrupted because of difficult school closures, with those from poorer backgrounds and with disabilities and learning difficulties paying a higher price. The digital divide is further exacerbating the issue, with many students not having access to the technology that they need for remote learning, and many students are being priced out of education, with limited or no internet access whatsoever.

Some 1.6 billion children and young people across the world are having their education disrupted, and children with disabilities and girls are feeling this acutely. Pre covid, 258 million children and young people were already out of school, and with the pandemic now in full swing, it is estimated that more than 20 million girls and half of all refugee girls in secondary school are unlikely to return to schools once they reopen. Girls whose education relied on specialised programmes to keep them in school are at particular risk due to the cuts in global education funding. The UK Government pledged to ensure that 40 million girls receive an education and that 20 million girls will be reading by the age of 10 across the world. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that we meet those targets, especially considering the impact of the coronavirus?

The UK development fund for the education of girls has been in steady decline since 2016. It is well below the international benchmark that donor Governments invest at least 15% of their aid in education. The Minister must let us know whether she plans to raise the aid budget allocated to girls’ education and how she plans to ensure that the UK keeps its commitment. I will end with the words of an African proverb: if you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation. The United Kingdom must lead the global community in tackling the structural barriers that shut girls out of their learning, exclude them and deprioritise their education.

I am a humbled to be the first man to take part in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on her brilliant opening speech, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on her important new appointment.

There are many interventions we can make to fundamentally change the world. We can ensure that people have clean water. Dirty water and water-borne diseases still kill thousands of children every day. We can vaccinate children, which is a UK priority. In the last Parliament, British taxpayers vaccinated a child in the poor world every two seconds and saved the life of a child in the poor world every two minutes from diseases that, thank goodness, our children do not suffer from today. We can exhort contraception and family planning, allowing women in the poor world to decide whether and when they have children.

But for me, education, and educating girls in particular, is top of the list of ways we can change the world. If we educate a girl, she will almost certainly marry later. She will ensure that she educates her own children. She is likely to be economically active. She will adopt a leadership position in her family and her community, and these women are increasingly seen in national government. The UK has been a leader in this area under both parties, and our Prime Minister eloquently extols the importance of every girl having 12 years of education as a critical way of improving the world. We see in Africa the extraordinary way in which education is valued by parents and children as the ladder out of poverty. They walk so far every day to get an education and wrap their textbooks in the brown paper that shows their value.

When so many children cannot go to school here and in the poorest, most deprived parts of the world, this is not a time for Britain to renege on its promise to the poorest through the 0.7%. Every Member of this House was elected on a promise to stand by the 0.7%. It is just 1% of the debt we have racked up this year. The 0.7% is already reduced by nearly £3 billion, because gross national income has gone done so much this year. If these cuts persist, it will mean that 1.6 million fewer children go to school, 12.6 million of the poorest women in the world will not have access to contraception, 3.4 million starving and hungry people will not get humanitarian support, 9.3 million children will not get vaccinated and 6.3 million who would previously have got access to clean water and sanitation will not get it.

If the Government try to protect one or more of those areas, the effect on the others will be even worse. It is a dismal start to the UK’s presidency of the G7 to cut this budget, when we have seen the United States increase its aid spending as a priority just this week. We know from the pandemic that we will not be safe here until we are safe everywhere. It is a terrible mistake to cut the 0.7%, and I urge the Government to think again.

Education is the route to changing the world and people’s lives for the better. That is a stark statement, but it is true. On this International Day of Education, I reflect on my family’s journey and how much they valued school and learning. Back in the 1930s, in back-to-back terraced Manchester, my grandma was made to leave school at 12 and go to work in a shirt factory, missing her education. She has passed through my family a fierce appreciation of the power and opportunity that education can give. My grandma, my mum and me have all benefited a little bit in each generation from education.

You will notice, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it is all women in that story, and that speaks to another truth. Education for women and girls is vital—vital for community advancement out of poverty; vital for the environmental stewardship of our planet; and vital for the health of individuals and families.

I was recently honoured to be appointed as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Mozambique, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. Along with our excellent high commissioner, NneNne Iwuji-Eme, and her team, the UK’s focus on mutually beneficial trade is underpinned by another commitment of the Prime Minister: namely, our pledge to work so that all girls across the world get 12 years of quality education. For some communities in Mozambique, Africa and around the world, educating girls empowers women, helps lift communities out of poverty, fights back against violence against women and girls, and helps build bounce-back ability to today’s global challenges, such as the covid pandemic or the awful recent storms and flooding in southern Africa—I am thinking of you. My friends in Africa have all the skills and attitude to make things happen. It is a brave man or woman who tries to tell Mama Jay or Mama Patricia or Princess that they do not need an education or that they cannot start their own business or lead large teams of people—good luck with that, because those ladies are in charge. My grandma was like those African women, my friends. They have all the brains and skills, but less than 12 years of good education. In the 21st century, it should not take generations for women and girls to access what they need and set themselves up for life. This Government have rightly prioritised a pledge to work with the world to make that happen, and I personally pledge support, with my new friends in Mozambique, through all my actions, and to help them benefit in the same way that my family has done for generations.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to the Members who have already spoken for their contributions. As others have pointed out, the immediate health and economic emergencies of the pandemic have demanded a great deal of Government attention and parliamentary debate across the world, yet it is important to note too the devastating impact that covid-19 has had on children and young people.

The widespread disruption to education offers the most obvious example of the challenges that young people have had to endure. Over 1.6 billion students globally have faced disruption. They face months of uncertainty and prolonged periods without seeing friends and the luxury of some normality. Hon. Members are right to raise concerns about the consequences of this disruption on children’s learning, and I fear that the long-identified link between poor attainment and poverty will have been further exacerbated by the digital divide. Just as worrying is the impact that the disruption of the past year has had on young people’s wellbeing.

Now, I of course understand that this disruption to their education and their lives was sadly unavoidable in the UK, and I would like to take this opportunity to extend my gratitude to our young people, their parents, teachers and lecturers for the extraordinary resilience that they have shown over the past year. In return, I think we have an obligation to play our part. Here in the UK, we should ensure that the support packages that are in place to support families through the crisis are maintained. To prevent an entire generation losing out on education, I believe we must be prepared to spend whatever it takes to ensure that schools, colleges and universities have the resources and flexibility necessary to allow our young people to catch up on any tuition that they have lost over the past year.

Then there are those skills and experiences found beyond the classroom, which are more difficult to quantify but are just as invaluable. Youth organisations and outdoor educational centres have always played a key part in this regard—places such as the Llangrannog Urdd camp in my constituency—and they need financial support now so that they are ready to open and return to capacity as soon as restrictions can be lifted safely.

I draw a comparison between children in the UK and internationally, because although children across the world have seen their education and lives disrupted, at least children in the UK can expect efforts to be made to make up for the past year. We can be confident that we have the means necessary to achieve all this for children in the UK. The same is not true for other countries. When we consider that globally 265 million children and adolescents do not have the opportunity to attend a complete formal education, it seems clear to me that we have a duty to help. Therefore, the decision to reduce the UK’s aid spending must be reversed if we are to play our part in the global effort to secure equitable access to education for all.

I am very proud to co-sponsor this debate on the United Nations International Day of Education, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on securing this important debate.

First, I welcome the important steps that the Government have taken to support education in the United Kingdom and throughout the world. In his first speech as Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend committed to ensuring that all girls receive 12 years of quality education, and that is something with which I fully agree. The Prime Minister also announced £515 million to help get more than 12 million children into school in some of the poorest countries in the world. This week, I took part in an evidence session as a member of the International Development Committee, and I was very pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary reiterate the Government’s intention to continue to use UK aid to support girls’ education. It is an important step in ensuring a better, more prosperous and fairer future for all of us.

This week, I have also been part of the United Kingdom’s delegation to the Council of Europe. From discussions with our European partners on the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, on which I sit, it is clear to me that we must continue to work together to tackle the issues that cause people to become displaced. It is also a matter that many of my constituents take a keen interest in, through groups such as Stafford Welcomes Refugees. It is important to remember that when children have sadly been displaced, they must still continue to be educated. That has never been more clear to me than when I visited the Malala school in Lebanon with Save the Children. Malala herself is a leading example of how education can transform people’s lives, and I was honoured to visit the school to see at first hand how UK aid is being used to educate displaced Syrian girls. The school will help to ensure that a generation of girls is not being lost, thanks to the education they are receiving from British teachers. In the future, they will be able to return to Syria and become its future teachers and doctors.

That point is why it is critical that this summer the UK and Kenya are due to host the Global Partnership for Education replenishment summit. The GPE has a shared commitment to ending the world’s learning crisis and is the largest global fund dedicated to transforming education in lower-income countries. Since 2015, the UK has supported more than 15.5 million children overseas to gain a decent education. With the UK set to hold that key summit this year and host the G7 in 2021, there has never been a better time for us to champion education. We should use our role in global Britain to ensure that the UN sustainable development goal on quality education is always achieved.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on securing this important debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. We mark this International Day of Education in a year like no other. More than half of the world’s student population still face significant disruption to their education. This year we have been outraged by the number of British children who cannot learn from home. More than ever, it has become clear that access to the internet and, more importantly, the information it carries, should be a right as much as clean running water. This emergency extends far beyond our UK borders. The scale of the education emergency is almost impossible to comprehend. At least a third of the world’s schoolchildren have been unable to access remote learning at all during the school closures. According to UNICEF data, three quarters of children not reached by remote learning globally live in the poorest households or rural areas.

The consequences of that are far-reaching. It means that more children will be forced into child marriage or child labour. It may also mean more children permanently dropping out of education altogether. It is one of the great injustices of our times, and there will not be a vaccine that will immediately fix it. In the year when the UK has the presidency of the G7, we are also hosting COP26. The eyes of the world are looking to us to lead. The Foreign Secretary has said that girls’ education is a core priority for the Government.  That is a laudable aim and one that I fully support. The thing is, though, the official development assistance allocations released on Tuesday paint a slightly different picture. The Government’s proposed cut in aid to 0.5% of gross national income, counter to their manifesto promises, comes on top of a year-on-year decline in the share of aid budget allocated to education.

I heard just this week that the budget for education in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is to halve. I would like to know whether that is true, but it is worth looking at this year’s figures. A total of 5.6% of our development budget is currently spent on education. That is well below the 15% international benchmark. Halving that would be very short-sighted and, frankly, a scandal.

The UK must lead in the creation of the global education plan. The fact that so far nothing has been pledged, despite our hosting that summit in the summer, flies in the face of the Government’s own policies. I urge our country to pledge the £600 million to the Global Partnership for Education, as suggested by the Send My Friend to School campaign. There is, of course, the climate crisis and the two are linked. Many studies have shown that investing in education is one of the best ways of tackling the climate crisis. There is no better way for us to make a difference in this world than investing in education, and I urge the Government to do exactly that today.

I too welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate today. Covid-19 is steadily turning the global learning crisis into a catastrophe, both at home and abroad. Existing inequalities are widening at a terrifying rate, threatening to leave behind a lost generation and undo decades of progress.

Currently, 1.6 billion children and young people globally are suffering from educational disruption, risking the future of the world’s most marginalised children, and this is particularly so for girls and children with disabilities. Educational development enriches society and minds. It could be a lifeline to those from disadvantaged backgrounds and it paves the way to a thriving, more enriched and liberated society for all to enjoy and to prosper in.

Even before the coronavirus, UNESCO estimated that 258 million children and young people were out of school around the world, and millions more were attending school but not learning the basics. Once again, I ask the Minister to commit to uphold the current aid commitment of 0.7% of gross national income, at a time when coronavirus is throwing decades of progress on poverty, healthcare and education into reverse. Not to do so is a dangerous decision for millions of the poorest people around the world. We have a moral responsibility to support them.

These cuts are most likely to effect the children who are already the most marginalised, impacting support for refugees and the internally displaced, supported children with disabilities and specialist programmes to keep girls in school, and displacement from climate change due to crop failure and famine. Natural disasters and conflict over resources is another key disruption to education. Those displaced face significant barriers, including saturated school capacity, destroyed infrastructure, linguistic barriers and discrimination.

Pushing ahead with further cuts to our aid budget, this Government are yet again turning their back on those most in need. If covid has taught us one thing, it is that we have responsibility for each other. It is a recognition that, when children in one country are left without an education, we all are poorer as a result. Education is the defining factor in building a fairer, more prosperous society. It is the foundation for building a better future with global development, peace and prosperity at its heart. It is a power to change lives. Will the Government take the opportunity today to demonstrate global leadership in their commitments to funding education for those most vulnerable, marginalised and desperate children in conflict and crisis settings by increasing their aid allocation to education to 15%, and will they utilise our position as president of the G7 and COP26 to encourage other donors to step up and increase their funding too?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for securing this incredibly important debate.

This global pandemic has exposed many inadequacies and inequalities in education, not only in our country but around the world. From access to computers and broadband to a supportive environment, disparities have been replicated in every country. Teachers have had to adapt and be creative, often having to learn new skills—especially digital ones—very quickly. I salute every single teacher and member of support staff in every school.

Education is the major way out of poverty, and I fear that covid will have a long-term impact on the next generation if substantial measures are not introduced quickly. Some young people will be of an age when it appears more productive for the family to have their children out working rather than being educated, especially if they have lost income during the pandemic.

Governments and international organisations must put financial and other help in place to encourage pupils back to school, because if they do not return, it will cast a long shadow over the economic wellbeing not just of the individual but of the whole country. A recent OECD report states that if they miss one third of the school year, primary and secondary schoolchildren can expect their income to be some 3% lower over their entire lifetime. Providing information to parents and children about the benefits that education will bring them in the long term is crucial.

However, this crisis has also brought an opportunity for education systems to look at different ways of teaching, innovating, and changing assessment and examination systems. Sustainable development goal 4 was set to provide

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

We need systemic reform of our education system here in England as much as we do in other countries, and we need to learn from each other about good practice and pedagogy, adjusted to our individual countries. We need to realign the curriculum, assessment and examinations, and move away from a system that helps elite students and towards actual skill distribution to the entire student population. The UK Government’s White Paper on skills is an example that can be shared.

Countries must embrace a new vision of education for the future. If remote learning has taught us one thing, it is that e-learning can be harnessed if there is decent connectivity, and the right software can be highly cost-effective and help with knowledge and lifelong learning. It must be a priority for all Governments to improve access to technology and the connectivity of their populations, to address the glaring disparities that have come from those who have not had access to online learning.

We should see this crisis as a catalyst for sustainable and innovative reform, at the same time as building the foundation for greater resilience and sustainability in education. I hope that all Governments will seize this opportunity.

There will be three more speeches from the Back Benches and then I am afraid we will have to go directly to the wind-ups.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on securing this important debate.

Education is essential to eradicating global poverty, achieving every child’s potential and achieving the global goals. Girls’ education is especially neglected, and it too is essential. We can all agree on that, but one crucial element of education is often overlooked. By underfunding that element, not asking whether schools have it and not giving it priority in educational terms, we are letting down another generation and holding back the post-covid opening of schools.

So what is this magic but missing educational ingredient? It is WASH: water, sanitation—toilets—and hygiene education. Cleaning has become a major part of covid control in schools here in the UK, and it is no different around the world, yet I went to many schools before covid that had very few toilets or sinks and very little soap. Teachers are doing a great job of struggling on, but their educational facilities mean that girls miss school every month because they cannot manage their period at school, and many children with disabilities cannot go to school because there are no toilets accessible for them.

Half of all schools globally do not have soap and water available to students, 620 million pupils do not have decent school toilets, and every year, diarrhoea and intestinal infections together kill nearly 140,000 school-age children. Poor WASH in the first years of life is closely linked to chronic malnutrition, leading to stunting, which then leads to long-term effects in the development and learning potential of children.

Opening schools safely when it is covid-safe to do so is an urgent priority, but clean water, toilets and hygiene are essential to enable that. A school without those is not a safe environment. I urge the Government not to cut the 0.7% aid budget, and I urge the Government, the Minister and all Members to keep asking, “What about WASH?” in every discussion about education. This summer, the UK will co-host the Global Partnership for Education funding summit, with Kenya, and there will be a particular focus on getting girls to school. That is very welcome, but we need to have ambitious amounts of money dedicated by the Government—civil society is calling for £600 million—and for ensuring that WASH investment is a part of that as well. Facilities must be inclusive and accessible, and ensure privacy, safety and dignity. So I hope to hear this addressed in the Minister’s response today to this crucial question for global education: what about WASH?

As a governor at a special school in Dudley, I saw many of the challenges faced by highly skilled and dedicated teachers in providing top-quality education to children with learning disabilities, even in a country with all the advantages of the United Kingdom. But I also saw the incredible difference the school made to those children and to their families, not only to their education, but to their social and emotional development, and to tackling barriers and inequality.

When I went with Results UK and Leonard Cheshire Disability to see projects being run using UK aid for children with learning and physical disabilities in Kenya, I saw that the difference that education was making was on a completely different scale; children who had until recently no hope of even the most basic of schooling were able to enjoy so many of the benefits that we all take for granted. Without this schooling, too many children with learning disabilities, particularly girls with disabilities, were kept shut away at home, their opportunities in life unbelievably and heartbreakingly limited. But with school, funded through UK aid, they were growing and developing just like any other child of their age, with joy on their faces that could light up any room—this was genuinely changing lives.

It is more important than ever when budgets are tight that money is spent on the things that will make the most difference, and nothing could make more of a difference than investing in making sure that some of the most vulnerable children in the world can access quality education. I am proud that the UK set the example in replenishing funding for education which cannot wait, to make sure that children in emergency zones, whether places of conflict or areas where people have been displaced by famine, disease or climate change, have an education that can transform lives. I am pleased that other countries, such as the United States, the Netherlands and Germany, have stepped up to increase their own donations during the current crisis, when so many people around the world face even more barriers to accessing that education. I hope that the UK and our Government will use the opportunities as they host the G7 this year to make sure that not only our country, but our partners match our commitments with actions that meet the scale of the challenges we face to deliver on quality global education for all.

I am very grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to slip under the wire for this very important debate. Like other hon. Members, I reflect on what education has meant for my family. I have two sisters, and the three of us are the first generation in our family to have gone through higher education. That is not an accident; it is not some freak of nature whereby this is suddenly a generation where the Carmichaels got smart. It is because my generation were given opportunities that were denied to my parents, grandparents and other generations before us. So it pains me to see that with 90% of our children out of school as a result of school closures arising from the pandemic, we risk losing and taking away these opportunities from our own coming generations. The pandemic has illustrated better than most things the full consequences of the digital divide, with which we have lived for too long; we see those areas of the country that have access to connectivity and those that do not, and the families who have broadband and sufficient devices for everybody to get home schooling opportunities, and those who do not. So when we come to the end of the restrictions and to rebuilding our economy, we must also look at rebuilding our own education system. Significant though these problems are, I suspect that most young people and teachers in most countries in the world today would love to have the problems that we will have when it comes to rebuilding after the pandemic. The progress that we made against the millennium development goals in terms of getting young people into primary education was significant, but let us not ignore the fact that we did not actually meet the millennium development goals, so it is now more important than ever that we try to meet the sustainable development goals.

The one point that we have to understand is that giving opportunities to young people in other countries—in the developing world, in particular—is not some act of altruism; it is actually good for our own children and communities. I look at the work that has been done by Anderson High School in Lerwick for decades now through its participation in the Global Classroom Partnership, and I see what that has added to the young people coming through that school in Shetland. The money—in hard cash terms—that we would be required to put in to meet the 0.7% GNI target would already be much reduced; not actually to meet that 0.7% target is criminal. The Government must think about this again, not just for the benefit of people in the developing world, but for the benefit of our own children and their educational opportunities.

I thank the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for bringing forward this important debate. On the UN International Day of Education, we must renew our commitment to UN sustainable development goal 4, pledging that by 2030 quality education will be accessible to all children and young people, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation or class. This was always going to be a challenge. However, the pandemic has further highlighted unequal access to education. We must redouble our efforts to address long-standing educational obstacles and the new challenges that we face as a world in lockdown.

At the height of covid restrictions, schools were closed to more than 1.6 billion learners globally, and the impact has been felt most acutely by the most vulnerable. In the UK, as many as 1 million children and young people suffer from digital exclusion. I welcome measures from broadband providers to extend internet access to the most disadvantaged children. I also pay tribute to teachers in Glasgow, who, in some cases, have been going around houses to hand out dongles to those in need. However, more needs to be done at a UK Government level so that no young person is ever disadvantaged because of digital exclusion.

Internationally, remote learning remains out of reach for at least 500 million students. Many Members have pointed out that those most affected will be girls. Pre pandemic, 132 million girls worldwide did not attend school due to poverty or gender-based discrimination and violence. As a result of covid school closures, millions more are dropping out of school, with the Malala Fund estimating that an additional 20 million girls could be out of school by the time the pandemic ends. This is an entire generation of girls for whom life chances and choices are limited. We should also all take note of the comments from the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) regarding WASH.

Although I welcome the Government’s commitment to supporting 12 years of quality education for girls, and their support for the UN Refugee Agency for education of refugee children, these announcements are sullied by the decision to reduce the UK aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI. Even a short-term cut will impact children struggling to access an education, and it is notable that Members on both sides of the House have criticised this cut today.

One of the most challenging groups to support are learners in conflict zones. The Secretary of State has previously stated that he is proud of the UK’s aid generosity and that aid is a very positive vision for the UK as a “force for good” in the world, but if we are truly to emerge as a progressive global Britain, we must also acknowledge the impact on children and their access to education of UK foreign policy. Whether we are discussing generations of Palestinian children confined to refugee camps or the plight of children in Yemen after years of a war partially facilitated by the arms trade with Saudi Arabia, it is our duty to recognise the consequences of our actions and flawed foreign policy decisions. Only then can the UK sincerely call itself a resolute force for good in the world.

Finally, I echo the words of the UN Secretary-General:

“education is the foundation for expanding opportunities, transforming economies, fighting intolerance, protecting our planet and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”

These are objectives that all Members share, so I call on all of us to continue working towards safe, accessible and quality education for all—especially girls—both at home and around the world.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (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 the Member for Rotherham (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 the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) talked about the importance of educating girls, because it lifts the whole country, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) observed the importance of. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (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. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (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?

Just before I call the Minister, I should explain, for those who can see, either in the Chamber or elsewhere, that the clock in front of us is wrong by about three minutes, so the official time up there for when this debate will finish is 5.3 pm. I do not want the hon. Ladies who are about to speak to think that they are being short-changed in any way whatsoever. They are not. It will, in fact, be 5 o’clock in the real world, but it will say 5.3 pm up there.

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 the Member for West Worcestershire (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 the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (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.

It has been an excellent debate. I want to thank all 14 colleagues who were able to get in on the debate, but especially the eight colleagues who had wanted to speak from the Back Benches but were unable to do so on this occasion.

We travelled from the north of the UK in Orkney and Shetland, down to the south and Meon Valley, off to the west in Ceredigion and Maidstone in the east. We heard a consistent message about the importance of education, with some particular themes coming through: girls’ education, inclusive education, the importance of sanitation in schools and the importance of quality teaching.

From every speaker today, whether Opposition or Government Members, we heard about the importance of the UK’s leadership around the world in this issue. The UK Parliament has dedicated time to this subject today. Through the International Parliamentary Network for Education, which I co-founded with Kenya in the last year, we are arranging for many Parliaments around the world to speak this week about the UN International Day of Education and the importance of education.

We went all around the world in the speeches. We heard about Bangladesh. We heard about Syrian refugees in Lebanon. We heard about Mozambique. All Members who have spoken today agree on the importance of education. We want to see and follow the money in this Parliament, because we want to see the Government’s rhetoric matched by the appropriate level of funding for the various replenishments, so that we are not only encouraging others to contribute but making our own contributions. This has been a wonderful, female-dominated debate, for a change, and I thank everyone who took part.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered UN International Day of Education.