Let’s get WISE about prioritizing investment in education
Pauline Rose on the highlights of the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar
November 06, 2015 by Pauline Rose, Research for Equitable Access and Learning Center
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7 minutes read
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Mishal Husain, Julia Gillard, and Leymah Gbowee, at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar (c) GPE/Karen Pillay

The WISE Summit is a powerful force – it is the first conference I’ve been to where the first six speakers have been women, each of them world leaders in their own right.

Who better to speak about the transformative power of girls’ education than Michelle Obama, Her Highness Sheikha Mozah, Julia Gillard, Leymah Gbowee and Mabel van Oranje, and moderated by Mishal Husain?

And no holds barred: the US First Lady Michelle Obama spoke forcefully against sexual violence and female genital mutilation, and the need to ensure women’s bodies are a source of pride, not pain, if they are to progress and succeed in education.

Secondary education for girls takes center stage

A recurring theme during the opening plenary was the need to shift focus to secondary education. Speakers emphasized that it is at this stage that parents begin to doubt the benefit of girls’ education, as they approach the age at which they might be expected to get married, unlike their brothers, who are expected to become the bread-winners.

Beyond the speakers on the WISE panel, this focus is further reinforced by Malala’s campaigning for free upper secondary education, so all girls can have the same opportunities as she has access to.

Interestingly, 15 years ago, we were concerned about cultural barriers that prevented girls from gaining access to primary school. It is perhaps a sign of our success in breaking through these barriers that attention is now turning to education for adolescent girls.

Remaining inequalities in primary education must be addressed

Such attention is vital. However, we need to be careful that these important messages are not interpreted to mean that we have now solved the problems in primary school or even before they start school, or that we should dramatically shift resources to higher levels of education.

The evidence is clear: inequalities in learning between rich and poor and, amongst the poor, between boys and girls, start early. Learning gaps are visible as children enter primary school, and widen over the school cycle.

As a result, girls from poor households in rural India have only a one in ten chance of learning the basics by the time they should have completed primary schooling, compared with one in four for girls from rich households.

These widening of learning inequalities aren’t seen just in India: they are observed globally, in rich and poor countries alike.

This means a huge number of children are leaving primary school without the skills needed to enter secondary school. These low levels of learning amongst the most disadvantaged are likely to be as much of a barrier as the cultural constraints they face.

Funding must target the most marginalized

This then leads to an important question of how to prioritize public funding and international aid, a question that the Global Partnership for Education has to grapple with constantly.

Indeed, the recent Independent Evaluation of the partnership, for which I serve as the chair of the independent steering committee, identified the need for strategic decisions on how it allocates its resources: a balanced approach to planning across early childhood to upper secondary is needed, but given the public resources available, this is likely to require prioritization of how these resources are spent. Even if the resource envelope were to increase dramatically, such prioritization will still be needed.

One example: the Framework for Action for the new education global goal that has just been adopted at the UNESCO General Assembly calls for 12 years of free education. But, given how few disadvantaged children reach this level in many countries, abolishing fees for a full 12 years in the near future is likely to be a subsidy for the rich at the upper secondary level.

Importantly, abolishing fees at upper secondary could divert attention away from the invisible, marginalized children who are still excluded from a meaningful primary schooling.

Some governments may be relieved to be let off the hook from addressing the particular challenges of reaching the most marginalized, whose voices aren’t heard and who cost more to reach.

Adopting a progressive approach to free upper secondary education

A more appropriate strategy would be to adopt the principles of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which calls for progressive introduction of free secondary education. In the meantime, subsidies for those from disadvantaged backgrounds who do reach these higher levels is desirable, particularly in countries still struggling to achieve universal primary school completion.

It is certainly imperative to pay greater attention to the problems that girls face when they reach adolescence, and put in place strategies to address this. As Michelle Obama highlighted at WISE, these strategies need to go beyond resources alone, to also attack negative beliefs and attitudes that hold back progress.

One key strategy needed to achieve results at the secondary level is a focus on addressing the problems that still exist in the early years of education, by allocating sufficient resources to overcome the barriers that are holding back learning of the most disadvantaged.

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