By Will Paxton, head of education policy and advocacy for Save the Children UK and chair of the Global Campaign for Education UK’s Policy Group, and Anthony Davis, policy adviser for Plan UK
As debates about the post-2015 development framework rumble on, there appears to be considerable agreement that in education a refocusing from access to learning will be needed. But where are we on educational inequality? How strongly is this now embedded in the broader post-2015 development debate?
Many organizations, including the EFA Global Monitoring Report team, are highlighting inequality as a critical education challenge, but on the whole it is not being taken seriously enough and there is in sufficient recognition of just how vital it will be. This is a major problem.
It is also surprising because much of the overall development debate is focused on inequality in other areas. Income and wealth inequality are very much on the agenda. Even some unusual suspects like the IMF and OECD have highlighted why extreme inequalities in society potentially undermine social cohesion and put constraints on economic growth.
Yet for some reason there is relative silence about one of the major drivers of lower income inequality – the creation of more equal education systems. The experience of countries like South Korea in the 60s, 70s and early 80s and more recently Brazil is that spreading educational opportunity widely leads to lower levels of overall inequality.
No child should be forgotten post-2015
This is one reason the Global Campaign for Education in the United Kingdom decided to focus our latest report on educational inequality. Our core argument is that in the post-2015 framework, forging greater equality of educational opportunity must be front and centre.
We simply cannot afford to repeat the mistake of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which failed to focus on the most disadvantaged. As the UN has said: To the extent that accelerating progress towards some targets is easier when resources are concentrated among the better off, the era of the MDGs may have inadvertently seen some channelling of resources away from the poorest population groups or from those that are already at a disadvantage.
We cannot afford to make this mistake again.
The children we have left behind
In the GCE report we chart the scale of the educational inequalities and injustices that continue to hold millions back from fulfilling their potential.
- Despite gains (the MDGs did focus on gender inequity), girls continue to be disadvantaged in many countries and regions. Not only have 68 countries failed to achieve gender parity in primary education (with girls disadvantaged in 60 of them) but in many countries girls are also less likely to transition to secondary school, more likely to drop out and less likely to pass national examinations.
- Children born into the poorest households are less likely to be in school and learn once there. Using the WIDE database developed by the EFA Global monitoring Report team, we take the examples of Nigeria, Pakistan and Ethiopia. The chart below shows the significant inequalities between income groups in these three countries. In Nigeria, for example, in 2008 two thirds of the poorest 15-24 year olds had not completed primary school compared to only 3 per cent of the richest.
- Where a child lives also affects whether or not they can access education and how well they do if in school. The urban poor are a major and growing concern, particularly children living on the streets or in informal settlements. However, taken as a whole, children in rural areas have fallen far behind those in urban areas and are less likely to be enrolled in school.
- And finally, a lack of disability focus, or even mention, in the MDGs has contributed to the comparative neglect of children with disabilities. A disproportionately high number of disabled children are out of school – poor disabled children, whose families cannot help support them, fare worst.
Failure to tackle inequality is why we are off track on universal primary education
Also using WIDE data, GCE-UK carried out some new analysis of the impact of high inequality on the numbers of out of school children. Our research suggests that if the attendance rate for all Nigerian children of primary school age rose to that of the wealthiest males, the number of out-of-school children of primary school age in 2008 would have been 5.1 million rather than 9.7 million. In Pakistan, the impact would be proportionately even larger: the number of out-of-school children of primary school age in 2007 would have been 2.5 million rather than 6.6 million
In these two countries alone this would mean close to 9 million fewer children out of school. It is a simple, but important point: the failure to tackle inequality is a major reason why we are falling short on the promise of universal primary education.
Are we serious about reducing inequality?
It is pointless to talk about income inequality being a problem without willing the means to actually reduce it. The evidence is clear – more equal schools where all children have a good opportunity in life significantly contribute to lower later income inequality. Today’s inequalities in education are tomorrow’s inequalities of income and wealth.
That is why post-2015 education goals and targets must include a specific focus on inequalities. This means measuring the progress of girls compared with boys, the poorest compared with the best off, children with disabilities compared with those without and those living in disadvantaged areas compared with those in wealthy areas.
It is only by doing this, by devising indicators with a robust focus on inequality, that this time around no child will be overlooked and fairer school systems will play their role in forging fairer societies.