This week the world celebrated the first International Day of Education. It needs to be a celebration of achievements and a commitment to do much, much better.
Across the globe there are hundreds of millions of children and youth out of school because of extreme poverty, conflict, gender discrimination and other reasons such as that simply, there are not enough resources allocated to education.
These out of school children are evidence that some governments are undervaluing the very resource that enables them to grow, to prosper, to be recognized for their contributions--a quality basic education.
The data are not controversial--investments in education improve economies, health and well-being, population planning, the environment, employability, housing, and peace-building and sustainability, to name a few and as documented by many studies including those by the United Nations and the World Bank. The costs of not educating are higher than those of sound, universal education systems. In Mali, alone, research by Educate A Child a programme of Education Above All Foundation and Results for Development, estimates that not educating out of school children results in an annual loss in GDP by almost 7%.
And, we know that the benefits of education are highest in those countries with struggling economies.
Yet education is undervalued by many governments. Why?
It is not undervalued by those who can’t access a quality education or by those who have struggled to participate against staggering odds.
Shimuly grew up in poverty in Bangladesh. Her father passed away when she was young and her mother, Arful, worked as a maid to support her family of five. With her meagre earnings, meeting the family’s basic needs was a daily struggle. Shimuly’s family could hardly afford to eat twice a day. Against such a backdrop, a quality education seemed beyond the family’s reach. Without the means to purchase necessary school materials, Shimuly and her siblings dropped out of primary school. Today, Shimuly is in school; this has strengthened her sense of self-worth and opened her eyes to new possibilities. Shimuly is thriving and ranks amongst the top tier of students in her class. Her mother beams with pride and wants her to stay in school no matter the costs. Shimuly says, “I am very confident... I want to complete my education. I dream of being a teacher someday”.
For an indigenous child in north-eastern Cambodia, life can be challenging. Approximately nine tribes share a remote tropical forest, making a living by growing rice and relying on hunter-gatherer traditions to survive. People live in small villages of bamboo houses without modern amenities, such as clean drinking water, electricity, toilets or healthcare. Nine-year-old Phanda lives in Veal Ksach with her family. From her village, the closest school was a three-hour walk through dense jungle. That was until the community supported the construction of a school and two local teachers were trained to work alongside some government-sponsored teachers. The school now has teacher lodgings, a clean water supply, solar power and Phanda’s favourite place: a library stocked with hundreds of storybooks. Every morning, she gets up, tends the animals and completes her chores on the family’s farm. She then packs her schoolbag and walks to school. “I want to come to school every day and one day be a teacher,” she says.
There are millions just like Shimuly and Phanda who have been supported by the Education Above All Foundation’s Educate A Child programme. But there are multiple millions more who have not been reached and they are just like the people around us, our children, our brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, or children we see playing in the local park – everyday people who have been dealt a wrong hand. All of these millions remind us of why we need International Day of Education and why we should all reach out in support of those who need it most.
Governments are responsible for the well-being of their citizens and education is a double win--individuals gain and countries that educate their populations gain enormously. We need the International Day of Education to remind us of this important fact and to serve as way for countries and organizations to work together to make education for all a firm reality.
Yes, we balk at the cost estimates of education, which is understandable; but why do we shy away from looking at known ways that the costs can be reduced without diluting the outcomes? One of the reasons we don’t act is because we are fearful of those cost estimates, another may be the hard work that could be involved. But there are many examples from our work of how education approaches and systems can be diversified and improved to better meet the needs of all learners--not all are high cost and many deliver better learning that what is being spent currently.
We need to take the opportunity on this first International Day of Education to have the courage to admit that we must invest in education and we must have the courage to explore new modalities to make it truly universal. Education is not only an investment in the future; the daily news shows that it is also a critical investment for the present.
Dr Mary Joy Pigozzi is the Executive Director of Educate A Child, a programme of Education Above All