Education and the invisible child

LONDON • In his 1952 novel Invisible Man, the late Ralph Ellison famously portrayed American blacks as silent, long-suffering and entirely unnoticed by the majority white population.

In 2016, there is a new - and global - invisible class: the 260 million boys and girls who are currently denied access to basic education.

Today's invisible victims are refugee children holed up in tents, shacks and hovels who will never enjoy a first day at school; they are the millions of nine- to 12-year-olds condemned to child labour and the millions of young girls destined for child marriage and denied an education simply because of their gender. Ensuring a better future for these children is the civil rights struggle of our time.

Out-of-school children are losing out because of our failure to invest in education, but so too are another 600 million boys and girls who are in school but not learning. In low- and middle-income countries, half of all primary-school-age children don't learn basic literacy and numeracy skills.

All told, 900 million of the world's 1.4 billion children reach adulthood un- or under-educated. According to a forthcoming report from the International Commission on Financing Global Educational Opportunity (the Education Commission), which I chair, members of this neglected majority lack the skills they will need to succeed in a quickly changing global labour market.

In the interconnected world of the future, children will need to be taught information technology and computational skills if they are to find gainful employment.

However, in low-income countries, where technology is most needed to improve educational services and inclusive growth, only 10 per cent of students attend schools with Internet access.

To close these education gaps, a "business as usual" approach is unlikely to suffice. Indeed, by 2030 - the year by which the United Nations sustainable development agenda promises to deliver universal basic education - 1.5 billion adults will have had no education beyond primary school.

Worse still, half of the world's young people will still be entering the workforce with no recognisable qualifications, and will probably suffer long periods of unemployment.

For years, the international community has held summits promising to redouble its commitment to education. But, time and again, it has failed to fulfil that promise, thus depriving the next generation of the most valuable gift it could bestow. In 2002, 13 per cent of overseas development aid went to children's education. Today, that figure is 10 per cent, and in low-income countries it amounts to no more than US$17 (S$23) per child, on average.

By short-changing the world's children, we are squandering the most valuable untapped resource we have. Moreover, we could be setting the stage for a modern doomsday scenario, because an entire generation of uneducated, alienated young people will make easy prey for extremists and terrorist organisations. Fortunately, how to improve educational outcomes isn't a secret: The best schools hire dedicated and competent teachers and administrators, and teach curricula relevant to children's future needs.

Moreover, the Internet enables the poorest children in the remotest areas to access the world's best libraries and teachers. With auditing and accountability systems, we can make future investments dependent on results, and transform every classroom into a learning hub for every child.

Toward this end, the Education Commission - which includes leaders from government, academia, business and economics - just published a road map and a proposed global budget to provide universal, high-quality primary and secondary education.

Our evidence shows that if developing countries can adopt domestic reforms to match the results of recent success stories such as Vietnam, they can deliver education for all by 2030.

For our programme to succeed, the global investment in education will need to rise steadily from US$1.2 trillion now to US$3 trillion by 2030, and low- and middle-income countries will need to modernise their education sectors by increasing their domestic investments to 5.8 per cent of national spending, 1.8 percentage points above the current average.

If countries are willing to make this level of commitment, they should not fail to deliver universal education for lack of funding. To ensure that the money is there, the Education Commission is offering detailed proposals to reform the current global framework for funding education, and to bring multilateral development banks together to prioritise education and release new resources.

Education is the most cost-effective investment we can make, so the economic case for increased funding could not be clearer. The Education Commission's goal is to make today and tomorrow's children a "learning generation".

If we succeed, we expect low-income countries' per capita gross domestic product to be 70 per cent higher by 2050 than it is now.

By contrast, if the world succumbs to inaction and paralysis, we predict that it will cost global GDP US$1.8 trillion by 2050. The brunt of this cost will fall on low-income countries, where 25 per cent of populations will still live in extreme poverty.

Those are the quantifiable costs of ignoring an invisible generation of young people. The other costs, in terms of lost opportunities and ravaged, alienated lives, are impossible to quantify, but should be equally worrisome.


• The writer, a former prime minister of Britain, is United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education and chair of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline 'Education and the invisible child'. Print Edition | Subscribe