Experts denounce 'smoke and mirrors' UK education pledge

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits a school ahead of the Global Partnership for Education summit that is set to take place in July. Photo by: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / CC BY-NC-ND

Education advocates have criticized the United Kingdom government for a “smoke and mirrors” education pledge, which is said to have fallen short of the money needed to tackle the damage done to global schooling caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.K. government announced £430 million ($610 million) over five years for the Global Partnership for Education — a major education fund — on Friday, the first day of the summit of the G-7 group of nations. Despite the U.K. co-hosting next month’s GPE summit alongside Kenya, its pledge was short of the £600 million that advocates, including current Conservative Party politicians, said is needed.

“Given the government has put so much of a priority on girls' education and its co-leadership of the GPE replenishment summit, I think [the donation] isn’t as much as it should be and needs to be.”

— Pauline Rose, director, Research for Equitable Access and Learning Centre

Students in lower-income countries have been hit especially hard by the pandemic, which has forced many out of the classroom — potentially permanently.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced in April that the government would spend £400 million on girls’ education in 2021-22. But the U.K. government's aid budget cuts also mean that education spending overall has been disproportionately harmed, with reductions of 40% from the 2016-2019 average, according to an analysis by the Center for Global Development.

There had been concern among development advocates that a GPE funding announcement would come out of the already squeezed aid budget, causing other programs to be affected. “This funding pledge for the Global Partnership for Education is separate to the £400m of UK aid which will be spent this year on bilateral efforts to increase girls’ access to education,” said a statement by the U.K. government.

Numerous projects on girls’ education have been canceled as a result of the aid budget cuts, and the £300 million, five-year, multicountry Adolescent Girls’ Education & Empowerment Programme due to begin in early 2021 has “gone quiet,” according to a person familiar with the U.K. government’s tendering process who spoke to Devex anonymously to preserve professional ties.

Susannah Hares, co-director of education policy at CGD and an author of the analysis, described Friday’s announcement as “smoke and mirrors ... because the £400 million for this year includes [around £50 million in] payments to GPE from previous replenishments, so I don’t know if any of this new commitment will actually be disbursed this year.” She added: “I don’t think this actually may result in more than £400 million spend for education this year by the U.K. government. It’s also just unclear because they are so vague about their spending.”

But Hares said that the £430 million was good in the context of the government’s aid cuts, adding that GPE had run a “great campaign” and had done “a remarkable job of securing commitments” amid an economic crisis.

Pauline Rose, director at the Research for Equitable Access and Learning Centre, told Devex it was “very positive” that the donation was additional to preexisting bilateral education spending commitments but that the donation still fell short. “Given the government has put so much of a priority on girls' education and its co-leadership of the GPE replenishment summit, I think [the donation] isn’t as much as it should be and needs to be,” she said.

A key and much-promoted development objective of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, later adopted by the G-7, has been to get 40 million more girls in school in lower-income countries over the next five years, as well as getting 20 million more girls reading by 10 years of age. The pledge Friday received much criticism from experts who said it is incompatible with the aid budget cuts.

That target was too small, both for the U.K. alone and the G-7 collectively, according to Sandra Baxter, research uptake manager in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. She wrote to Devex: “The government needs to be ambitious! If nearly 300m children were out of school pre-covid (many more since) and they apparently want to address a global problem and build back better than 40m girls only into school as a target between the seven richest countries is pathetic.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.