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International Day of Education

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 26 January 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the International Day of Education.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. It is a huge honour to open this debate to recognise the importance of the International Day of Education, a day that is dedicated to raising the importance of education for all. As the UN Secretary-General said this week,

“education is a fundamental human right and the bedrock of societies”.

In my Chelmsford constituency, the vast majority of children and young people can access excellent education. In fact, in the Chelmsford district, 94% of our schools are graded good or outstanding by Ofsted. That is well above the England average, which is also high at 89%. Essex children outperform the national average in key areas such as early reading. Enriching out-of-school activities can also enhance educational attainment. During the school holidays, I am delighted that Chelmsford children from more disadvantaged backgrounds can also access enriching activities through the holiday activities and food programme, which I am deeply proud to have set up during my time as Children’s Minister.

However, during the pandemic, we saw so starkly in our country that when children cannot access school, their education suffers, as does their mental wellbeing. It is therefore good news that, on the whole, education for the children of Chelmsford and elsewhere across the country has now returned to what we consider normal, but that is not the case for so many children in other parts of the world. Currently, an estimated 222 million children are in need of urgent educational support across regions affected by emergencies and protracted crises. Some 78 million children are not in school or receiving any form of education. That figure of 222 million is an increase from 75 million in 2016.

The educational gulf is greatest in the world’s poorest countries. World Bank research from back in 2019 showed that pre-pandemic, 90% of children in low-income countries could not read proficiently. Education Cannot Wait’s report from last June reminds us that pre-covid, only 9% of crisis-affected early grade children achieved minimum proficiency in maths, and only 15% in reading, yet maths and reading are the vital building blocks on which all education is founded.

The covid pandemic further widened educational disparities, and girls are disproportionately affected. Nearly two thirds of the figure for global illiteracy is made up of women. The Malala Fund estimates that 130 million girls are out of school today. However, when girls are educated, it strengthens economies and creates jobs. World Bank research shows that, on average, women with secondary school education earn almost twice as much as those with no education at all.

Educated girls tend to be healthier citizens who raise healthier families. A girl who has been educated is much more likely to ensure that her children are vaccinated, she is less likely to marry young or contract HIV, and she is more likely to have healthy, educated children. Each additional year of school that a girl completes cuts infant mortality and child marriage rates. Furthermore, when girls are educated, communities are more stable and can recover faster from conflict.

Investing in girls’ education is good for our planet. The Brookings Institution calls secondary schooling for girls the most cost-effective and best investment against climate change. Research also suggests that girls’ education reduces a country’s vulnerability to natural disasters. Save the Children estimates that universal secondary education for girls could avert 50 million child marriages by 2030.

This year, on the International Day of Education, we have been thinking particularly of the 3 million girls in Afghanistan who were previously in education but are now out of school, because the Taliban will not allow girls to attend secondary school or university. The recent ban on female aid workers will mean that even more Afghan girls are denied their right to education, as the Taliban insist that girls can be taught only by female teachers. That will mean that yet more Afghan girls face forced marriages and poverty. I am therefore concerned to hear from Save the Children that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is considering ending its “Supporting Afghanistan’s Basic Services” programme, which provides health, education, WASH—water, sanitation and hygiene—and nutrition to around 300,000 people. We must not pull the rug out from under the women and girls of Afghanistan.

We know that in many developing countries, girls face extra barriers in accessing education. During my year as an FCDO Minister, I travelled to 15 African countries. So many girls told me at first hand about the challenges that they face: the fear of violence, including sexual violence, on long walks to school; the lack of water and sanitation, which can make it impossible for girls to attend school when they have their period; and the constraints on family finances, which so often mean that any money that can be scraped together for school fees is reserved for sons.

However, I also heard from these girls their determination to learn. I met girls who dreamt of becoming doctors, teachers and even pilots. I also saw the many projects that the UK has invested in to help girls to overcome these barriers. Girls told me about the mentoring project in Malawi, where young women who have completed their secondary education give advice to other girls and help them through their own school experience. I saw the joy on girls’ faces when I opened a clean water well and lavatories in Lesotho. I remember the seriousness of the young woman in Sierra Leone who explained how our project to reduce violence had completely changed the culture of her school, ensuring that girls could learn without fear. And the whole community—thousands of people—came together to celebrate the launch of the Shule Bora programme in Tanzania. That programme has a special emphasis on girls, children living with disabilities and those living in the most deprived areas. They came to celebrate because they knew what we know: when one focuses on helping the most marginalised girl to access education, every child is helped.

We should all be very proud of the UK’s track record in supporting education in developing countries, and especially, in supporting girls’ education. We have championed the campaign for 12 years of education for every girl. Each year, we host the Education World Forum, with delegates coming to London from across the world to discuss how to learn from one another and how to improve education standards in their countries.

During the pandemic, the UK co-hosted the Global Partnership for Education summit, raising $4 billion for education in some of the world’s poorest countries; our pledge was £430 million. During our leadership of the G7, the world’s richest countries committed to getting 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10, with all that to be done by 2026.

Girls who are not in school do not have a voice of their own, so it is vital that the UK continues to lead from the front on girls’ education and to use our voice for them. I urge the Minister to make sure that all FCDO Ministers—including the Minister with responsibility for development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)—continue to champion that cause. We need to champion it at the World Bank development meetings this spring, at the meetings of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women in New York in March and at other international fora. I also urge the Minister to work with other FCDO Ministers to publish, with urgency, the long-awaited FCDO women and girls strategy.

The UK is also a co-founding member of Education Cannot Wait. Its recent analysis indicates that 84% of out-of-school crisis-impacted children live in areas with protracted crises. The vast majority of those are in countries specifically targeted through ECW’s investments, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen. The war in Ukraine is pushing even more children out of school, with recent estimates—according to UNICEF’s report of 17 January—indicating that the conflict has impacted more than 5 million school-age children.

The FCDO tells me that ECW is already delivering quality education to over 7 million children across more than 30 crisis-affected countries. We will not reach the target that we have committed to of getting 40 million more girls into school without the work of ECW. All across the world, funding needs are growing due to conflict, climate change and the pandemic. Across UN-led humanitarian appeals, the education sector was funded at just 22% of what it needed in 2021—that is half what was achieved in 2018.

Next month, ECW will hold its high-level financing conference. If we are to help the 222 million children and young people to receive the education that they deserve—to unlock the potential of the world’s children —we must unlock the financial resources to make it happen. Governments, the private sector, philanthropic foundations and individual donors need to work together to find the resources. I know that our official development assistance budgets are tight—very tight—but UK leadership is key. If we step away from the promises that we have made to the children of the world, to the girls of the world, other donors may also step back and reduce or delay their investments.

Children across the world get just one chance at their education; they cannot wait. I therefore urge the Minister and the FCDO to dig deep into our pockets at the pledging conference next month and to make sure that Education Cannot Wait has the resources that it needs to deliver for our children.

It is a real pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). Much to my surprise, I found nothing in her speech to disagree with, but I promise not to make that a habit—just to reassure her and my hon. Friends. Two of the most significant points of substance that she raised were the importance of girls’ education, and investment in that, and continuing to build a global alliance for more investment in girls’ education.

I remember that in my time as a Minister in the Department for International Development, we began the process of putting substantial investment into girls’ education. I remember how proud I was—as I am sure other Members were at the time—that Britain was willing to show global leadership on that issue. I pay tribute to Gordon Brown who, since stepping down as Prime Minister and being appointed as the UN special envoy for global education, has continued to do everything he can to build support for that.

The right hon. Member for Chelmsford also made an important point about Afghanistan and the international community’s continuing outrage about the way in which women and, in particular, young girls are being treated there. She spoke of the need for her colleagues in the Foreign Office, if at all possible, to maintain funding for girls’ education, however difficult that is going forward.

There is one thing that the right hon. Member for Chelmsford did not mention—I think I understand why, but she will understand why I raise it. I think it would be an even better statement on education to have a separate, dedicated Department for International Development, able to champion the case for investment in education globally, free of some of the constraints that the FCDO is under.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I make some parochial points now about the importance of more education investment in Harrow, where we are blessed with remarkable headteachers and teachers, as well as impressive students. One of the great privileges for me as the Member for Harrow West is to have the opportunity to go into schools and see that the future of the community in which I have lived all my life and that I love very much is in the safe hands of such impressive young people.

Nevertheless, it is clear that many of the schools still face real financial difficulties and that the governing bodies face challenges in recruiting headteachers and teachers, not least in maths and science, and also, increasingly, in other subjects, including humanities and English. I am struck by the comments of the executive heads of some of the academies that operate in Harrow about how difficult it has been on occasion to get a field of sufficiently talented applicants for the position of headteacher. As I say, they do a remarkable job none the less, but it would be good to hear from the Minister—if not today, perhaps in a letter—the Government’s plan to address the recruitment crisis in education.

Local authorities also need more funding for special needs education, and that is certainly the case in Harrow. Mr Sharma, you may recognise that there is a continuing difficulty with the fact that teachers who are appointed to jobs in inner London get a significant pay increase compared with teachers working in outer London schools. There is little difference in the cost of living in inner London as opposed to in outer London. It seems to me that the discrepancy in pay between teachers in outer London and their compatriots in inner London, which has been around for a long time, needs addressing urgently.

My last substantive point is that I want to encourage the Government to take a fresh look at investment in supplementary schools. We are lucky to have the Foreign Office Minister present, because she knows a lot about the Asia-Pacific tilt to which the Government are committed. I am struck by the need for us to invest in teaching the languages of Asia and the Pacific. Given the global significance of the Indian economy in years to come, it seems even sadder that we are seeing a decline in the teaching of the languages of modern India, including Gujarati, Bengali, Persian, Punjabi and Urdu. Among GCSE students in this country between 2015 and 2021, we saw a very steep decline: there was a 77% drop in the number studying GCSE Gujarati, a 66% drop in the number studying GCSE Bengali, and a 37% drop in the number studying GCSE Urdu. If we as a country want the full benefit of the trade deal that we hope to sign with India, having people who can speak the languages of that great country is essential. Too much of the teaching of those languages is left to very dedicated people in temples, mosques and Saturday schools across local communities.

To be fair, the Government have invested in teaching modern languages. They have recently invested some £14 million in teaching Mandarin and some £5 million in teaching Latin. Why not have a similar amount of investment in teaching the languages of modern Asia? We need dedicated funding, and we need specialist training available for teachers in those subjects. Why not have a flagship school programme to back teaching in that area? Why not offer a bit of funding to support the Saturday schools that do so much to keep up the level of GCSE studies? Where is the academic research programme to support such a programme of investment in these vital community languages?

With that, I apologise to the Front Benchers and to other Members of the House: due to childcare reasons, I cannot stay for the full debate, but I will certainly read the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), the Minister and others.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on securing the debate. I thank her for making it possible for hon. Members who are passionate about this issue to make the case for every child in the world to have 12 years of quality education. Nothing could be more important, and nothing is less politically controversial, but because we all agree how important it is, it does not get enough debate in this place. That is why I am so sincere in my congratulations to my right hon. Friend.

Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of chairing the all-party parliamentary group on global education—more recently, I have been co-chairing it— and I was also a co-founding chair of the International Parliamentary Network for Education. Regrettably, I had to hand on those responsibilities when I was given the honour of chairing the Treasury Committee. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has embraced the opportunity that those marvellous groups offer to champion this important cause.

In my right hon. Friend’s powerful opening speech, we heard about the important ways in which enabling every child in the world to get a quality education could make our future so much brighter. Growing the world’s economies, making sure we are all healthier, and helping to tackle climate change are all powerful and provable implications of ensuring that every child gets a good education.

I will focus on those—particularly refugee children—whose education suffers because they have to flee conflict. I thank all the families in Worcestershire who have been so good about welcoming refugees from Ukraine into their homes. We are proud to have welcomed 1,000 Ukrainians into Worcestershire, and half of them are children who are being educated in our local schools. I thank the families, but I also thank the schools and teachers for welcoming those children into our educational settings.

I have a point for the Minister to take back to her colleagues at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. There is rightly a payment to the school when it takes in a Ukrainian refugee child. If the child moves to another school after a short period of weeks, that payment does not follow them, and that has led to a few problems. The up-front lump sum gets paid to the school that receives the child, but if they are there for only a little while, the money does not go any further. The Minister will probably not be able to respond today, but will she commit to write to me about how that could be better tackled in the system?

I endorse the points that were made about those poor girls in Afghanistan. There is not a day when I do not think about how terribly they are suffering from not being allowed to go to school. The medieval cruelty of the Taliban regime in preventing their daughters from being educated is appalling. We must speak out about it whenever we can, because it is only by keeping that focus that we can ever hope for the situation to change.

It is not just girls in Afghanistan, but millions of children in countries all around the world—including our own—who are missing out on education. It is particularly difficult to educate children in refugee settings, which is why I commend the work I saw at first hand when I was the Minister responsible for that budget in the international sphere.

The work done to help children get an education is often delivered very rapidly by Education Cannot Wait, and I want to highlight the opportunity for the UK to continue to show its global leadership in this area with the upcoming replenishment of the Education Cannot Wait budget. I am sure the Minister and her officials will be carefully studying the results that Education Cannot Wait has delivered in settings around the world. I hope that the data still show the good impact and powerful value for money that that funding produces, and that the UK can therefore lead on that important work and crowd in other countries to contribute to it.

To conclude my brief remarks on this incredibly important subject, I again thank my right hon. Friend for securing the debate. On behalf of my constituents, I also thank the Minister for the work the UK does to make the world a safer, healthier and more prosperous place by investing in education—not just in this country, but in countries that cannot afford to educate all their children. I urge the Minister to look particularly favourably on the work that is done for children in refugee situations by Education Cannot Wait.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on securing this important debate in recognition of the International Day of Education.

I am hugely honoured to be the Prime Minister’s special envoy for girls’ education. My role is to globally champion his message that providing 12 years of quality education for every single girl on the planet is one of the best ways of tackling many of the major issues facing the world today, such as poverty, climate change and inequality. Investing in girls’ education is an absolute game changer: if we want to change the world for the better, girls’ education is a great place to start. The child of 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 who are educated are more able to choose if and when to have children, and how many children they have.

Girls’ education is, of course, vital for women and girls, but it is also extremely important in levelling up society, boosting incomes and developing economies and nations. Tragically, the pandemic has been one of the biggest educational disruptors in our history, affecting 1.6 billion learners at its peak in 2020. It also created a global education funding gap of $200 billion per annum. In poorer countries now, over 70% of children cannot read a simple text by the age of 10.

Many of those children are girls, many of whom will never return to school, or even start school, lowering their chances of future employment and decent livelihoods. Out of school, girls are at greater risk of violence, sexual violence, forced marriage, early marriage, female genital mutilation and human trafficking. All those factors are creating the very real risk of a lost generation of girls, and we must work hard and together to stop that happening.

We also need to work better and differently. The UK has played a leading role in education policy and financing: we put girls’ education at the very heart of the 2021 G7 summit in Cornwall, giving it the priority and profile—as well as the financial and political commitments—that it needs and deserves. We also agreed two new, ambitious global targets: getting 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10, and getting 40 million more girls in primary and secondary school in low and low-to-middle income countries by 2026.

At the global education summit in London, also in 2021, we raised a landmark $4 billion for global education with our international partners, which will help another 175 million children to learn. At COP26 in Glasgow that year, we made the important connection between girls’ education and climate change, showing how girls’ education can be very much part of the solution. That is because girls who are educated are much more able to participate in decisions, actions and leadership in relation to climate resilience, adaptation and mitigation.

We know that education interventions must provide more than just learning, and the UK will continue to be a gender equality leader, tackling the issues that prevent girls from getting to school and staying in school. No girl should have her hopes and dreams dashed because she has had to marry too early or become a mother due to a lack of family planning advice.

In my role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy, I have been able to travel extensively to see for myself some of our education programmes and how they are changing lives for the better. In Ghana, in the hills of Aburi, I sat in on non-formal community classes where young mothers brought their babies to school. In Sierra Leone, I saw programmes that focused on improved learning, but also on special measures to address violence in and out of school and other safeguarding issues. In Nigeria, I saw how our teams on the ground have adapted programmes to respond to covid school closures. They achieved that through community-based learning programmes, the recording of radio and TV lessons, and accelerated learning programmes to help children catch up. I had the opportunity to meet virtually with schoolgirls and teachers affected by the conflict in Syria. I heard how education was providing a real lifeline and a space for children to see their friends, rebuild their self-confidence and self-esteem and develop the skills they need to break the cycle of poverty, while also providing them with a sense of hope and optimism for the future. I was inspired by the dreams of one young girl who hoped to become an architect to rebuild Syria for the future, and another who wanted to be a social worker to protect children from violence. These girls are our future, and ensuring their right to safe, quality education is essential.

The weight of the challenge on girls’ education is significant, but our ability to make a change in the world —if we work together—should never be underestimated. We all must raise our game and rally the world behind the global targets that have been set and agreed. Achieving global targets requires a global response. Governments must prioritise education reforms, listen to civil society and not be afraid to partner with technical experts so that they can design their reforms around real evidence of what actually works. We need to urgently recover those learning losses caused by covid by focusing on foundational learning skills. Basic numeracy and literacy are essential for children to be able to stay in school and progress to higher levels.

We must listen carefully to our girls and hear what they say they want and need from their leaders—be it safer roads for walking to school, free sanitary products to help with confidence and school attendance, or separate toilets for privacy. Last but certainly not least, our global leaders need to speak out much more about the importance of educating our girls and to explain all the advantages for girls and women and for their children, their families, their communities and, of course, their nations.

I am very happy to participate in this debate, as an English teacher of 23 years before I was elected to this House. The International Day of Education is an important date in our calendar, and the theme this year is:

“To invest in people, prioritise education”.

I pay tribute to the hard work of the teachers in my constituency. I am currently undertaking my annual visit to my local schools, and I am always impressed by our young people’s political engagement, which is both impressive and refreshing. I pay tribute to them and the staff, who work hard to deliver education in my constituency.

The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 24 January as the International Day of Education in celebration of the role of education in peace and development. I thank the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for securing the debate. Education is a human right, a public good and a public responsibility. The right hon. Lady reminded us that illiteracy across the globe disproportionately affects women and girls, and that educating women and girls provides huge and lasting benefits to their communities and children, and helps to avert child marriage, which is important for the future and prosperity of developing countries.

I agree with the point the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) made about the FCDO doing international development work of such importance in this and many other fields. We really should be looking to restore the Department for International Development; everybody in this Chamber agrees that the FCDO does important international development work, but that merits a Department for itself.

The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) reminded us of the huge benefits of educating women and girls and of the vast scale—some might say the daunting scale—of the challenge. It is important that the international community works together to address it, if for no other reason—although there are many reasons—than the risk of violence to women and girls, which goes alongside being deprived of and facing barriers to education.

It is indisputable that inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong opportunities for all are inextricably linked to a country’s success in achieving gender equality and breaking the cycle of poverty that leaves millions of children, youth and adults behind. Today, 244 million children and youth are out of school, and 771 million adults are illiterate. Their rights to education and so much more are being violated. That is unacceptable.

UNESCO is dedicating this year’s International Day of Education to girls and women in Afghanistan who have been deprived of their right to education, and is calling for the immediate lifting of the ban restricting access to education. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) said that global education commands agreement and support across the House—it is one of the rare occasions when we see that happening. I note her comments that children are being deprived of their education in far too many circumstances, both refugees and in a more general, global sense. The international community must continue to work to change that.

I want to focus on the situation in Afghanistan, which is alarming and bewildering to many of us looking on in the west. The Taliban regime is denying its daughters, wives and sisters access to any form of schooling whatever. Today marks 493 days since the Taliban banned teenage girls from school, and 32 days since it banned women from going to university and working in national and international non-governmental organisations.

Currently, there are 2.5 million Afghan girls and young women out of school, 1.2 million of whom were denied access to secondary schools and university places following the regime’s diktat about women in education. Despite international condemnation, the Taliban regime justified that step on the basis that some women had not adhered to its interpretation of Islamic dress code, and that conservative traditions must be protected. It is an interesting conundrum that repressing, diminishing and controlling women in that way is such a priority for the Taliban regime, despite the fact that 28 million Afghans require aid, with some 6 million on the brink of famine—some 93% of Afghans do not have enough food, according to the UN. Winter temperatures are plunging as low as -17°C, and even lower in mountainous areas, so making it a priority to deprive women of their education seems bizarre to anybody looking on.

Amid all that, Save the Children had no choice but to pause its aid efforts in areas where it could not operate without its female staff, because women are essential to the safe and effective delivery of its services. Can it really be true—I cannot believe that I am asking this question—that the Taliban would rather its people died of starvation than women be seen to undertake useful work to assist Afghan civilians?

Being a girl or woman in Afghanistan under the Taliban must surely be a frightening, marginalising and desperate experience. In essence, Afghan women are back to being invisible in public life, imprisoned in their home and, where applicable, ordered to cover their ground and first-floor windows so that women inside cannot be seen from the street. Women can have the end of their thumbs cut off for wearing nail varnish. In such a regime, where women are viewed as chattels and the possession of male relatives, of no value as human beings, robbed of their dignity and their identity reduced to the clothes that they must wear, how can we be surprised that such a regime explicitly forbids the education of its women?

It is heartbreaking to consider that in the 20th century, until the conflicts of the 1970s, Afghanistan was seen as a progressive country. Afghan women were first eligible for the right to vote in 1919, only a year after women in the UK enjoyed that right and a year before women in the US were allowed to vote. As part of that, how women’s rights to education in Afghanistan have been rolled back is remarkable and frightening.

No society can truly prosper socially, economically or culturally unless there is access to education for all on an equal basis. Until the Taliban in Afghanistan understands that, the international community must continue to stress it and to engage on the issue when possible. I hope that the UK Government will play a leading global role in that international effort. Access to education is such a basic universal human right that denying it to women in Afghanistan or anywhere based on gender is incompatible with all that is right and decent.

As we commemorate the International Day of Education, it is right and fitting that we dedicate this day in 2023 to girls and women in Afghanistan who have been deprived of their right to education. Only a regime that seeks to control and tyrannise would fail to recognise that access to education for all its people has no downside for that society. We see that depriving Afghan women and girls of education goes hand in hand with the loss of so many other rights.

I know that all right hon. and hon. Members will seek to show solidarity with Afghan women and seek to restore their access to education. That should be a fundamental red line in all international engagement with the Taliban regime. Without access to education, the lives of Afghan women will be poorer, their children will be poorer, their communities will be poorer, the once great country of Afghanistan will be poorer, the climate will be poorer and the world will be poorer—poorer in ways that are beyond measure. We must stand up for Afghan women and girls and for the access to education that they need and deserve, with all the opportunities and fulfilment that go alongside securing that education. That applies to women and girls not just in Afghanistan, but across the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I refer the House to my entry on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—I am the co-chair of the APPG on global education. I thank my friend, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), for securing this timely and important debate to mark the International Day of Education and for her excellent speech. As co-chairs of the APPG, we both care deeply about this topic and are working closely together to shine a light on the importance of inclusive and quality education for all.

As we mark the International Day of Education this week, it is staggering to note that 222 million children around the world are affected by emergency and protracted crises and in need of urgent educational support. This has grown from an estimated 75 million in 2016, as more children around the world are missing out on essential education time. We find these children facing some of the world’s foremost challenges, from the war in Ukraine and the repression of women and girls in Afghanistan to the impact of food insecurity in the horn of Africa and climate-related disaster in the Sahel.

Education is every child’s right. It is fundamental to creating a peaceful and prosperous world. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) emphasised the value of education for all. Labour recognises the importance of quality, safe, inclusive and free public education as the cornerstone of the UN sustainable development goals. Education saves lives; improves nutrition and health; reduces child, early and forced marriage; and leads to more equal, respectful and open societies.

On visits abroad, I have seen the scale of the challenges we face in global education, in particular for women and girls. As the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) succinctly put it, girls’ education is an absolute game-changer. She is absolutely right to make that point. Every day, girls face barriers to education caused by poverty, child marriage and gender-based violence, poor infrastructure, cultural norms and practices and fragility. Around the world, 129 million girls are out of school, including 32 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower secondary school age and 67 million of upper secondary school age. As eloquently pointed out by the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), in countries affected by conflict, girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school than girls living in non-affected areas.

This year, UNESCO has dedicated the International Day of Education to the women and girls of Afghanistan. What is happening there is an absolute tragedy: the Taliban’s barbaric ban on the participation of women in public life means schools and universities have been closed to Afghan women and girls, in violation of their fundamental rights and freedoms. Since the fall of Kabul, the Taliban has stopped 850,000 secondary age girls from attending school; as we have heard throughout today’s excellent debate, the impact of that ban is devastating. At the same time, the world has watched in awe as brave girls and women in Afghanistan have protested and demanded the right to go to school in the face of repression by the Taliban. Afghanistan can never flourish while half its population is relegated from public life.

We must pay tribute to all those fighting for their right to education, but they need more than warm words and solidarity. The UK must act by working internationally to hold the Taliban to account for its escalating crackdown on women’s rights and doing everything possible to support education for all in Afghanistan, including through the Global Partnership for Education, which is making up to $300 million available in support of education for Afghan women and girls. Can the Minister say what steps the UK Government are taking with the international community to support women and girls’ education in Afghanistan? More specifically, will she rule out reductions in UK funding to Afghanistan while negotiations between the de facto authorities and the diplomatic and humanitarian communities are ongoing?

The UK is, and continues to be, a vocal supporter of girls’ education. But it is fair to say that the Government need to translate that rhetoric into results. According to analysis by the ONE Campaign, an estimated 7.1 million children, including 3.7 million girls, lost their education due to recent cuts to the UK’s aid budget. Alongside cuts, we also have delays—most recently to the international women and girls strategy, which the Government confirmed last week has been delayed once again. We cannot allow ourselves to fail a generation of young people, and that is why Labour urges the Government to announce a strong and early pledge for the Geneva Education Cannot Wait conference next month.

Since its establishment in 2016, Education Cannot Wait has reached 7 million children and adolescents with quality education in some of the toughest crisis zones globally. UK funding has supported an estimated 1.5 million of those children, but the challenge has grown since then. Civil society, members of the public and many parliamentarians have called for the UK to pledge £170 million over the 2023-26 period: a 13% share of Education Cannot Wait’s fundraising target. That would directly provide 2.6 million children in an emergency or protracted crisis with quality education, 60% of whom would be girls. Can the Minister confirm whether the UK Government will commit to make such a pledge ahead of next month’s conference? If so, when can we expect the announcement?

It is imperative that the Government meet their own targets on providing quality foundational learning to the most marginalised, including girls and children with disabilities. Girls and boys in conflict zones, climate shocks and natural disasters, and refugee settlements deserve to learn to read and write, do maths and prosper as much as any other child, yet just one in 10 of the 222 million children affected by crises are meeting required minimum levels for literacy and numeracy. Such extreme levels of illiteracy and innumeracy are an early warning sign that global educational goals, and related sustainable development goals, are in jeopardy. At the current rate of progress, it will take at least 40 years to achieve the sustainable development goal 4 target on learning.

In 2019, over half of children in low and middle-income countries were living in learning poverty, meaning that they were unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. In sub-Saharan Africa, that figure is closer to 90%. Behind those numbers, millions of vulnerable girls and boys around the world await our collective action. From inside makeshift refugee settlements, the damaged walls of classrooms, and communities torn apart by war and disaster, those children are holding on to the hope that education will allow them to realise their dreams of becoming doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers or whatever other profession they seek to achieve.

As we mark International Day Of Education, I want to end by sharing the thoughts of young people campaigning for their generation’s future. This week, I had the pleasure of meeting with the Global Partnership for Education youth leaders in Parliament as part of their youth action tour. The youth leaders are young people with lived experience from partner countries, and it was incredibly moving to hear directly from them about why we need to protect and increase education funding worldwide.

Another group of young people that I would like to highlight are Send My Friend to School youth campaigners. Each year, around 250,000 young people from across the UK take part in the campaign, meeting dozens of MPs. I have met their excellent campaign champions on a number of occasions. I am always inspired by the passion and commitment that they have for other children around the world, who are not fortunate enough to receive the kind of education that we do here in the UK.

I end with the following words from Jenson, aged 10, speaking on behalf of his classmates at Colne Engaine Primary School in Braintree:

“We think every child has the right to have an education. Reasons that stop children from going to school like natural disasters and disease, war and famine are not chosen by the children.”

Let that ring true in all our ears and urge us to act now as we celebrate International Day of Education.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for securing this debate to mark International Day of Education. I pay tribute to her work to drive progress on education around the world, both in her previous ministerial role and through her continued efforts as the new co-chair of the APPG on global education.

My colleague, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), would have been delighted to take part in this debate, but he is travelling on ministerial duties. However, it is a pleasure to be able to respond on behalf on the Government. I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions. The strength of feeling about the importance of global education is clear and unequivocal, as it should be. Colleagues will be aware of my commitment to this cause, as the former Secretary of State in the Department for International Development who published our first strategy on 12 years of girls’ education back in 2020.

Education, especially for girls, is a top priority for this Government. Over five years from 2015, UK aid supported more than 15 million children, including 8 million girls, to benefit from a decent education. We continue to stand up for the right of every girl, everywhere, to access 12 years of quality learning. We know that that is the key to unlocking individual potential, as well as advancing prosperous, thriving societies and economies. In short, and as all hon. Members have said, it is one of the very best investments we can make. That is because not only do educated girls’ earnings increase significantly, but they are less likely to be subjected to child marriage and domestic violence, and more likely to have smaller, healthier and better educated families.

Too many children around the world lack these opportunities and face many barriers: poverty; a lack of safe and accessible schools; and the twin threats of conflict and climate change. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) has said, this is seen most shockingly right now for girls in Afghanistan. I reiterate the Government’s condemnation of the Taliban’s decision to prevent girls from returning to secondary school and women to universities. Through our joint G7 Foreign Ministers’ statement and the UK national statement, we have repeatedly made that clear, and we continue to lobby the Taliban to reverse those destructive decrees.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford has set out, about 244 million children are out of school around the world and more than half are girls. About seven in 10 children in low and middle-income countries are unable to read by the age of 10, and that generation could lose $21 trillion in earnings over their lifetimes as a result. Put simply, we face the real risk of a lost generation, and we cannot let that happen. That is why the UK is driving international action to tackle the education crisis.

In 2021, we hosted in London the global education summit, which raised an unprecedented $4 billion for the Global Partnership for Education. We put girls’ education at the centre of our G7 presidency that year and secured G7 endorsement of the two global objectives mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant): to get 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10 by 2026.

We support developing countries to help children to learn in a safe, inclusive and sustainable way. Of course, that begins, just as it does in every school in all our constituencies, with strong foundations: basic reading, maths and social skills—the building blocks on which all children everywhere can make progress in school and reach their potential so that they have choices later in life. That is why the UK launched a commitment to action on foundational learning last year at the UN summit on transforming education. We are calling on all Governments around the world to prioritise those basics, especially for the most marginalised girls.

We also support girls and young women to make their way into higher education and training, to boost their employment prospects. As part of that, we launched the girls’ education and skills programme on International Women’s Day last year. That innovative partnership between Government and major global businesses was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald in her role as special envoy on girls’ education. I thank her for her relentless advocacy, her enthusiasm and the globetrotting that she does on behalf of the Prime Minister to bring these issues to light across the globe.

We want to continue to prioritise reaching the poorest and most marginalised girls, with a particular focus on reaching children affected by emergencies and protracted crises. On climate change in particular, the figures are bleak: 40 million children each year have their schooling disrupted by its impacts. For example, I met some children in the village of Mele in Vanuatu—a Pacific island literally the other side of the planet from here. I met them in December, and their school had been battered by sea storms unprecedented in the island’s history. That was a real, practical and destructive event for those small children, who had not experienced that in their lives before.

Those climate threats are creating the sort of disruptions that are absolutely destructive and will cause damage for so many more children, so our focus on helping developing countries to adapt and become more resilient to the climate shocks we know they will have to face will be critical to protecting those children who are in education and enabling them to continue their education. We are supporting education for the poorest through UK-led programmes in 19 countries. That is complemented by our significant investments through the Global Partnership for Education and Education Cannot Wait, which supports children through emergencies.

It is of course important to leverage financing. That is why we are a leading partner in developing the new international finance facility for education, which is focused on lower middle income countries to help girls into learning. Meanwhile, the UK Girls’ Education Challenge is the largest programme of its kind in the world. More than 1 million girls who were most at risk of dropping out are now staying in school and making progress, and over 150,000 with disabilities are able to attend school.

Our new position paper, which we published last month, is our road map towards addressing the climate, environment and biodiversity crises in and through girls’ education. I reassure colleagues that we will be publishing the new international women and girls strategy in the coming months, which will be framed around the three E’s of educating girls, empowering and championing the health and rights of women and girls, and ending violence.

Members have raised concerns about the reduction in the aid budget and its impact on education programmes. Colleagues are all aware that difficult decisions have been made to meet the 0.5% commitment, and to support those fleeing the war in Ukraine and insecurity in Afghanistan.

Will my right hon. Friend commit to writing to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to make the point that the money for Ukrainian refugee children in the UK, which I believe comes from the official development assistance budget, is not necessarily following that child if they move to a new school?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, of which I was not aware; it has not been brought to me in my constituency. I will take it up with the Secretary of State and ensure that we understand where those issues are, the size of the problem, and how we can ensure that, whichever schools are looking after those young people who are here from Ukraine, they can have the support they need.

We are prioritising our 0.5% aid spending in line with the priorities that we set out in our international development strategy, which, of course, includes girls’ education. The UK remains one of the most generous global donors, spending £11 billion in aid in 2021.

I reassure colleagues that, in relation to the Afghanistan crisis, FCDO officials are in regular contact with the NGO community to understand the impact of the Taliban ban on female workers. Where NGO partners have had to suspend activity, the FCDO is continuing to cover staff salaries and other critical associated operational costs, and we are encouraging UN agencies to do the same with their NGO counterparts.

As Members know, development is not just about aid packages. UK support to global education includes our valuable country partnerships, expertise, and power to convene others, such as through the global summit.

As colleagues have already said, and championed, we are proud to be a co-founder of, and leading donor to, Education Cannot Wait. Members have asked for details on the UK’s future commitment to ECW. The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, will announce the UK’s future contributions— I am afraid that I cannot steal his thunder—at the high- level financing conference in February.

I will end by reaffirming the UK’s unwavering commitment to global education, which remains at the heart of our work towards a more prosperous, stable and equal world. I know that all colleagues here today will continue to champion education as the most effective investment every nation can make.

I would like to take a couple of minutes to thank all the Members who have taken part in today’s debate.

It is clear from the work that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) did as a Minister, and the work that she has done as a Back Bencher to keep this issue on our agenda, how passionate she is. I thank her for reminding us that one of the reasons we do not talk about it enough is that we all agree about it. However, we must continue to highlight it.

In responding to my wonderful hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant)—who arrived overnight, not having had a night’s sleep, because she has been championing girls’ education on behalf of our Prime Minister—I want to get on the record all our congratulations for the announcement that we saw in the new year’s honours list. Often, people say that an OBE is about not only one’s own work, but the work of others—it is about a cause. But in this case she has been such a champion, for so many involved in the cause of making sure that all girls get 12 years’ quality education. I thank her for all she does; it was wonderful to see her name recognised.

The hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) made a really important point about languages. We often talk about the drop in European language learning, but he made an interesting point about the drop in other languages. If we want to make the world a smaller place and a better place, those languages are so important.

I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) not only for giving us a teacher’s perspective, but for using so much of her speaking time to focus on the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan. We absolutely need to make sure that women’s voices especially are heard on this issue. They do not have their own voice; we need to make sure that women’s voices are heard.

There is of course a special place in heaven for men who champion women’s issues, so I thank the co-chair, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), for his passion for this work and for co-chairing the APPG, and indeed for mentioning the work of young people in this country through the Send My Friend to School campaign. Those intergenerational links, us to them—but also across the younger generation—are vital.

I thank the Minister for also reminding us of her passion, which she has had for many years. I like the phrase she used—the UK “is driving” international action, not “has driven”. We all want to make sure that we continue in the driving seat to press this forward, leverage those partnerships and work internationally. We all look forward with great hope to what the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), will promise and pledge at the summit next month.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the International Day of Education.

Sitting suspended.