An ordinary classroom in an African school.

The state of global education: looking at the year ahead

It’s January – a time for fresh starts and taking stock for the year ahead.

One important opportunity that we shouldn’t overlook in the fray is the International Day of Education. Marked annually on 24th January, this year’s theme is “to invest in people, prioritise education”.

It’s an inspiring slogan on the surface. Education is a fundamental human right and an abundance of data illustrates the multiplier effect that education has on community and individual well-being.

From studies showing a 9% increase in hourly earnings for every extra year of schooling to reports that universal primary education could prevent 700,000 cases of HIV every year, it is clear that the world cannot achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 without investing in education. In every area of development, from health and sanitation to climate change and conflict, an educated community will recover faster and fare better.

The right kind of investment

However, the data also shows that merely getting young people into a classroom is not enough. Repeatedly, reports show that more children are attending school but failing to learn the basics like reading, writing and counting. Cruelly, as gains are made in some places it is the most marginalised young people that continue to be left behind.

To invest in everyone’s future, it is not enough simply to fund education. To make a real difference, we must also address the multiple barriers to education faced by the most vulnerable, investing in them as people with complex needs in order to prioritise an education that matters to them.

This is at the heart of Link Education’s work. In Malawi, our girls’ education programmes support out-of-school adolescent girls to gain basic literacy and numeracy. Over 5,000 girls were enrolled in the project who face complex barriers to education, including extreme poverty, early marriage and motherhood, household responsibilities, child labour, and disability. The majority of these girls had either never attended school, or had dropped out before learning basic literacy and numeracy.

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Taking a child-centred approach, girls are enrolled in community-based classes run at a time and place that better fits in with their lives. Specialist support is given to address disability, child-care needs and safeguarding to tackle all the barriers they face. These classes are supplemented with Girls’ Clubs that impart sexual and reproductive health knowledge and develop resilience and self-esteem. Many centres also run Sport for Change netball clubs that give additional support to the most vulnerable girls who are at the highest risk of dropping out.

When we invest in people, we can address the many and complex issues that can combine to prevent young people from learning effectively. This project is ongoing, but midline results showed great improvements in learning outcomes, attendance, and life skills (such as reproductive health knowledge, resilience and HIV prevention).

Bridging the gap

So, why is the world still struggling to address the global learning crisis? Experts agree on the importance and value of investing in education. Reams of reports provide the data to evidence these claims. Programmes like our own show that it is possible to reach even the most marginalised learners with a low-tech, low-cost approach. In 2023, no child should be left behind.

The reality is more nuanced than a tagline such as “to invest in people, prioritise education”. There is still a lot of work to be done to address learners’ complex and multi-faceted needs and that requires both investing in education as a whole, and targeting resources to address the underlying barriers which prevent education from being prioritised for the most vulnerable.

Sadly, global investment is lagging far behind need, and education continues to be under-prioritised at every level. It is estimated that there is a $39 billion funding shortfall to reaching universal quality education in low-and middle-income countries.

Even accounting for current pledges and commitments from global funders, financing for worldwide education is stagnant or declining. Locally in the UK, recent cuts to the aid budget have resulted in millions of children missing out on their education. The problem is exacerbated as low- and middle-income countries, struggling to balance budgets, have reduced their education spending in real terms in recent years.

What can be done?

International days of observance offer an opportunity to take stock and reignite interest in global issues, but the global learning crisis will not be fixed in one day. We must continue to advocate for the prioritisation of education funding year-round, and fight to be heard in the wider clamour around funding cuts.

What’s more, we must act now to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are not left behind. That means considering learners’ social and emotional needs just as much as their academic ones.
Those of us working in the sector should adopt a twin-track approach, where programmes are designed to improve education at a systemic level whilst also giving individual attention and support to those that need it the most. If we truly want to invest in children’s futures, we must tackle the multiple barriers that prevent them from learning.

Bringing it back to this year’s call to action to prioritise education to invest in people, what can we conclude? Let’s prioritise education, certainly, but let’s not forget the learner at the centre.

You can learn more about Link’s work here.