Harriett Baldwin opens a debate in the House of Commons on the UN International Day of Education and speaks in support of twelve years of full-time education for every girl.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UN International Day of Education.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling this important debate so close to the United Nations International Day of Education. After today’s moving debate on Holocaust Memorial Day, I add my tributes to the Holocaust Educational Trust for its crucial work in taking sixth formers to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. The visit I undertook with students from Hanley Castle High School will remain forever etched in my memory and, importantly, in their young memories. It is vital that such work continues.
I never thought that we would be marking UN International Day of Education at a time when our schools in the UK are closed to so many children. I share the Government’s aspiration to reopen our schools as soon as possible, and would welcome an even earlier date than 8 March, by reopening classes in a staged way, even for part of the day, with reception to year 2 back first, and gradually adding additional classes. Let us also make the most of fresh air and exercise, like the wonderful Forest Schools that so many of the West Worcestershire primary schools enjoy. I welcome the important investment that the Government are making in extra support and catch-up tuition, to help each child make the most of their potential.
Around the world, even before the pandemic, some 258 million children and adolescents were out of school. The majority of them were girls. More than half of 10-year-olds in low and middle-income countries were not learning even to read a simple text. As a result of the pandemic, 1.3 billion children around the world have seen their schools close at some point in the past 12 months. Let me quote:
“Twelve years of full-time education is not the only answer to the world’s problems. It is not a panacea, but it is not far short.”
Those are not my words; those are the words of our Prime Minister when he was Foreign Secretary. He knows that in many of the poorest, most conflict-torn countries, it is mainly girls who drop out of school early, who lag behind boys in literacy levels, and who have children when they too are still children. The Prime Minister continued:
“Female education is the universal spanner,”.
He said it is the “Swiss army knife” that helps tackle so many of the world’s problems, and that
“the best and biggest thing that we can do for the world, is to make sure that every girl gets 12 years of full-time education.”
It is wonderful as we begin 2021 and the UK presides over the G7 that girls’ education has made it on to the agenda. My wonderful colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), has been appointed the Prime Minister’s envoy. The UK’s G7 goal was to secure a commitment to getting 40 million more girls into education and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10. Here in the UK we are rightly concerned about the importance of laptops for remote education, but we should also not forget the importance of low-tech and simple things, such as exercise books, pencils, chalk, and text books, as well as older technology such as radio, for children around the world who are also having to undergo remote education.
It is wonderful that later in 2021, the UK and Kenya have agreed to co-host the replenishment of the global partnership for education, which is the only multilateral organisation that crowds in funding from richer countries to help education budgets in very poor countries. I wholly endorse the leadership that the Prime Minister and the Government are showing on education globally. A better educated world will be a healthier, more peaceful and more prosperous one, and that surely benefits us all. But that leadership will need bolstering with money from the UK aid budget.
The Minister will know that I oppose the temporary reduction of the overseas development assistance target, as it not only breaks our manifesto commitment, but will mean that there is less money available to tackle hunger, deliver vaccines, educate children in poor countries and make sure they have clean water. I welcome the commitment that the UK has made to the Vaccine Alliance, and the commitment that we have made to doubling international climate finance, but can the Minister reassure the House today that the cut to the aid budget is not going to affect the money spent on education for the world’s poorest children? Will our contribution to the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education be at least as generous and ambitious as before? Will as many girls as before be helped to remain in school through projects such as the Girls’ Education Challenge? Will she consider launching more UK Aid Match projects so that we can all donate more and have it matched by UK aid? What progress is she making as Minister for the European Neighbourhood and the Americas in encouraging our friends in the US to step up and spend more on global education under the new Biden Administration?
With new vaccines coming on line, we are starting the process of building back better after this awful pandemic, and of levelling up our own country as we recover. We also have a key role to play in building back and levelling up the world by ensuring that every child—both in our country and around the world—gets a quality education, no matter how poor the country into which they are born. That will be the most important way in which we can build a stronger, more resilient and healthier world for our children.
Harriett winds up at the end of the debate
It has been an excellent debate. I want to thank all 14 colleagues who were able to get in on the debate, but especially the eight colleagues who had wanted to speak from the Back Benches but were unable to do so on this occasion.
We travelled from the north of the UK in Orkney and Shetland, down to the south and Meon Valley, off to the west in Ceredigion and Maidstone in the east. We heard a consistent message about the importance of education, with some particular themes coming through: girls’ education, inclusive education, the importance of sanitation in schools and the importance of quality teaching.
From every speaker today, whether Opposition or Government Members, we heard about the importance of the UK’s leadership around the world in this issue. The UK Parliament has dedicated time to this subject today. Through the International Parliamentary Network for Education, which I co-founded with Kenya in the last year, we are arranging for many Parliaments around the world to speak this week about the UN International Day of Education and the importance of education.
We went all around the world in the speeches. We heard about Bangladesh. We heard about Syrian refugees in Lebanon. We heard about Mozambique. All Members who have spoken today agree on the importance of education. We want to see and follow the money in this Parliament, because we want to see the Government’s rhetoric matched by the appropriate level of funding for the various replenishments, so that we are not only encouraging others to contribute but making our own contributions. This has been a wonderful, female-dominated debate, for a change, and I thank everyone who took part.