Whilst the right to education is enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UNDHR, 1948) and later in the UN Convention on the Rights of Child (UNCRC, 1989), the international community has only been moving towards realising this in earnest since the 2000s. The key moment is considered the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in which achieving Universal Primary Education was made a priority, complemented by the Education for All Goals (2000-2015) which ambitiously set out 6 global aims to meet the learning needs of all children, young people and adults by 2015. Unsurprisingly, these have not been met.
In spite of a 91% global primary school enrolment rate and increased gender equality in enrolment has been achieved, 57 million children remain out of school, of which over half are in sub-Saharan Africa and/or in situations of conflict. Schooling is recognised by many children and their families as a gateway to opportunities. However, financial constraints for families who struggle to put food on the table or deep-seated cultural norms that dictate girls or children with disabilities should not attend school results in discrimination and inequitable access to education.
The international community is moving towards an even more ambitiously universal agenda, embodied by Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Inclusive and Quality Education for All), with an emphasis on quality of education and learning outcomes, life-long learning opportunities, universal free secondary education, and keeping girls in school. But the key challenge is to address the various context-specific social, political and economic barriers that are preventing children and young people to access schools.
Improving Livelihoods for parents/families
Financial constraints remain one of the most significant barriers to education, due in large part to extra costs like uniforms and school materials, which are out of reach for low-income, single-parent, and large families. This often results in a prioritisation of which child within the household will be sent to school, usually with a strong gender bias as boys are often favoured. Some families are so poor that the children themselves have to take on the role of breadwinners, leading to issues of child labour and informal/illegal employment.
Strengthening the financial capacity of parents and families is essential to ensure not only enrolment of children, but retention in education. There is also the additional benefit of pride and satisfaction that many parents from impoverished communities feel of seeing their child accessing opportunities that were most likely unavailable to them. This is key to sustaining any kind of educational programme by international NGOs, as basic material provisions of uniforms and stationary or even school building constructions, whilst extremely useful in the short term, will not lead to long-term changes for the community as a whole or future generations. Unfortunately this “quick-fix” mentality still persists for many donors, who prefer to fund tangible objects rather than investing in parental/family capacity.
Changing entrenched attitudes and beliefs
Attitudinal change is often the hardest to achieve and indeed to measure. Deeply entrenched social beliefs and sometimes discriminatory attitudes pose huge obstacles for minority or marginalised groups, such as girls, children with disabilities and indigenous populations. This ranges from families who wish to marry their child off for either financial or social reasons; geographically remote indigenous communities that are unable to access or excluded by their local educational system, and communities where children with disabilities are not able to physically access or attend schools, and are de-prioritised or considered unable to participate.
Meaningful change requires working at multiple levels and is a long-term and often uphill struggle. Grassroots engagement with families, communities and local leaders is needed not only to bring awareness to the fundamental human right to an education but also the benefits of doing so. Local and national institutions also need to be involved, from schools, local government and other services for example child protection agencies, to ensure that what is being provided is of good quality and that schools are a safe environment for children. Unfortunately, with the diminishing availability of multi-year funding, short-term (1-2yr) projects are becoming the norm. This is making it increasingly difficult to not only make any kind of real impact but also to monitor and report on the degree of change; something which is usually a mandatory requirement for all grants received by NGOs.
Providing vocational training and opportunities
Education helps to provide basic skills, such as numeracy and literacy, which are important in broadening opportunities for the future. However, without universal secondary education available to all, many children drop out of school and are left without any practical skills to find work, thus partly explaining the current global youth unemployment of 13.1%. It is also wise to understand the economic realities for many children and young people, and that they will need find work soon after secondary school (if not sooner), for which they will need useful vocational skills.
Educational interventions by the international development community need to be thinking about supporting young people in their transition to work through technical and vocational training. This responsibility should be shared by the local governments, who need to make this a key part of their youth-directed policies and initiatives. This is currently a significant gap in the sector, but with the global drive to reduce poverty and inequality, there is a clear opportunity from a public policy and international development perspective to drive forward this area.
These 3 areas a crucial to the success of SDG4, and are needed to establish firm foundations for improving access, enrolment and retention to good quality education and ensure young people emerge from education with good employment prospects. Donors need to be more sympathetic to the longer-term nature of this approach, in order to allow international and national organisations and governments think holistically and address all these areas. In doing so, the agenda can move beyond Education for All to Opportunities for All.