By Mary Joy Pigozzi, PhD., Executive Director of Education Above All Foundation’s Educate A Child Programme
As we reach the halfway point to realising the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is a good time to reflect on progress and consider the challenges that lie ahead.
SDG 4 – “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, ” established in 2015, has a deadline of 2030. Though progress has been made, the sobering reality remains: worldwide, over 244 million children and youth, aged 6-18, are still out of school.
Whilst 67 million Out of School Children (OOSC) at the primary level are still excluded from education and the journey to Zero OOSC is seemingly daunting, some positive strides have been made. Let’s reflect on where we are, and the journey ahead.
The goal of ‘education for all’
While SDG4 may be the ‘home’ of education, quality education plays a vital role in achieving many of the other 16 sustainable development goals. Education is a human right, enabling healthy, prosperous lives and peaceful communities, alleviating poverty and promoting gender equality. Early and consistent access to and participation in quality learning positively changes the futures of the poorest and most marginalised children, families, and . For instance, a child born to a literate mother has a 50% higher chance of surviving beyond age five than the child of a mother who cannot read.
A lingering and unprecedented education crisis
The global challenges of the past few years, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have massively impacted this basic right that has already been denied to so many due to endemic poverty and other significant barriers. Some children have yet to return; the longer they remain outside the system, the less likely they are to re-enter.
Adding to the range of barriers children face accessing education, conflicts and natural disasters have further disrupted education. Especially for some of the most marginalised and vulnerable communities in countries- from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Sudan and Nigeria, Turkey and Syria.
This complex situation requires a sophisticated approach. We need a robust partnership approach, placing education at the forefront of development efforts. Impressive progress has been made, showing what can be achieved with the right action, approach and partners.
Aim big, act bold
Setting brave and audacious targets is critical to driving real change. Ten years ago, through EAA Foundation’s Educate A Child Programme (EAC), we launched a bold initiative to enrol 10 million children in quality primary education—an unprecedented goal many thought was impossible. To date, along with partners, we have committed to enrolling over 14.5 million out of school children and youth at the primary level. Concurrently, EAC is engaged in additional bold strategies–ramping up global advocacy for educationally excluded children, addressing the funding crisis in education, and supporting selected countries to reach Zero OOSC.
Scaling success through partnerships
Our worldwide partnerships have demonstrated it is possible to enrol the hardest to reach OOSC. Essential to our success has been recognition that “one size does not fit all”. A key element of our approach was to work with known partners at scale, asking them to build on their experience. Sometimes that means knocking on families’ doors with an enrolment clipboard, and sometimes banging on the door of global policy institutions. We’ve implemented creative and innovative methods to make a difference.
Through partnership, we’ve been able to exceed targets and enrol over 12 million OOSC in primary education in 57 countries across the world. Additionally, the governments of Djibouti, Rwanda, The Gambia and Zanzibar, have joined our fight against exclusion by committing to reach Zero OOSC.
Nevertheless, the need to double down on efforts at pace and scale remains. We don’t have a second to lose.
Protecting education from attack
Protecting schools and universities in times of conflict is a crucial part of the global strategy to reach SDG4 and achieve universal education.
Encouragingly, the UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) unanimously adopted a resolution in 2020 (UNSCR 2601), condemning attacks on educational institutions and civilians connected to schools. This landmark agreement highlights worldwide consensus to protect education.
Yet, attacks on education, schools, students, and teachers have significantly increased in the last two years. To tackle this, we need the international community to collectively unite against such violence.
Emphasising accountability and advocacy
It is important to hold attackers accountable through built-in mechanisms for monitoring and reporting on attacks, consistent with UNSCR 2601, which urges states to adopt laws and policies that hold attackers on schools and education accountable while supporting victims, including marginalised groups like refugees. Empowering local communities in data collection offers victims some justice by contributing their stories, challenging stereotypes, and advocating for their right to education-.
Youth empowerment as agents of change
The next major leap forward in achieving the SDGs may well come from the world’s young people. At the Transforming Education Summit in 2022, young people took centre stage to demand the future they envisage.
By active involvement in civic engagements and volunteerism, youth can become advocates and peacebuilders in their communities. At EAA Foundation, we have long believed that empowering youth through quality education and leadership skills is crucial for driving positive change and sustainable development.
Alongside partners, EAA has trained thousands of young people. Through its Protecting Education in Conflict (PEIC) Programme, working on the frontline in conflict-affected countries like Uganda and South Sudan, youth are constructing a peacebuilder network.
Our Reach Out To Asia (ROTA) programme offers workshops and training that inspire youth with a spirit of citizenship, belonging, and volunteerism whilst mobilising this influential group as advocates and peacebuilders, particularly in regions of insecurity and conflict. The programme has also been adapted to tackle climate issues by equipping youth with green skills for the future, helping to support their future lives and livelihoods.
Innovation is vital to effectively address educational challenges worldwide. Digital inequality increasingly hinders access for many learners. EAA’s Internet-free Education Resource Banks (IFERBs), which emphasise context-appropriate and adaptable approaches, provide basic learning resources, offering access to educational support materials in a wide range of contexts.
The power of engagement
We see how our collective investment in education is contributing to breaking the cycle of poverty and demanding social change. Now it is the global education community’s duty to honour their commitments to the rights of all by helping all young people access and climb the education ladder.
A pause for thought
This halfway point in the mission to achieve education for all calls for deep reflection on lessons learned as well as renewed determination.
Although the fulfilment of the SDGs may still seem distant at half time, we have seen that leveraging the efforts of governments, organisations, communities and individuals genuinely does work.
As we prepare for the few remaining years on route to 2030, our Foundation will continue seeking exponential strides forward in education, bringing us closer to success across the SDGs.