Opinion: How the UK can still lead on education at the G-7

Children practice their writing skills on chalkboards in New Delhi. Photo by: Nick Cunard / DFID / CC BY-NC-ND

On Friday in Cornwall, England, leaders of the G-7 group of nations will turn their attention to global progress on education.

For United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson, this will be a critical moment in his campaign to give every child, especially the world’s poorest girls, the opportunity to complete 12 years of quality education.

Since his time as foreign secretary, Johnson has argued that widening access to education for girls is a highly effective way of driving development in low-income countries.

Announcing the girls’ education action plan last, he urged world leaders to back a plan to get 40 million more girls in the developing world into school, calling it “one of the smartest investments we can make.”

He is right: Widening educational opportunities is central to reducing poverty and building prosperous, resilient economies, and peaceful, stable societies.

However, despite the clear benefits, the challenge of educating the world’s children is bigger than ever.

[The Global Partnership for Education] replenishment is a test of the international community’s preparedness to support the education of children living in the world’s low-income countries.

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to already overstretched education systems, combined with economic shocks and increased pressure on public finances has created an unprecedented challenge for both global and national education financing.

The outcome of tomorrow’s G-7 session on education will be critical to solving this challenge.

At the summit, Johnson is expected to announce the U.K. contribution to the Global Partnership for Education. GPE is looking to secure $5 billion for its 2021-2025 operating period, which will allow it to transform education systems in up to 90 countries, where 80% of the world’s out-of-school children live.

GPE’s support will also leverage more and better domestic financing — the most significant and sustainable form of funding for education.

It has been calculated that the U.K. needs to contribute £600 million ($850 million) over the next five years to achieve GPE’s $5 billion target; that’s £120 million a year from an aid budget of about £10 billion a year.

Announcing a U.K. contribution of £600 million tomorrow would help set the right level of ambition, including crucially for other G-7 countries, most of whom are still yet to pledge.

However, the cuts to U.K. development assistance, which have already slashed funding for education aid by 40% have put a U.K. pledge of £600 million in jeopardy.

Announcing anything less will make it difficult for Johnson to persuade other leaders to back his plan for girls’ education.

The money is there — with Germany, France, and the United States all increasing their foreign assistance budgets — the risks of an insufficiently ambitious pledge from the U.K. to a successful GPE replenishment are real.

If, as feared, the aid cuts have constrained Johnson’s ability to commit £600 million to GPE tomorrow, there is still a way for the U.K. to achieve the targeted amount and increase the chances of a successful replenishment.

Johnson has made it clear the government will return to spending 0.7% of national income on international aid. He should repeat that intention tomorrow and use it to set out the U.K.’s practical commitment to being a global influence for good.

If, as I hope, we return to that level of spending next year — or sooner if the cuts are reversed — we could see as much as £4 billion return to the U.K. aid budget. Even a gradual return over the next two financial years — mirroring the way the target was originally reached with year-on-year increases, will see an injection of new funding.

Johnson should make it clear that he expects some of that funding to be used to ensure the U.K. provides the GPE the required £600 million over the five-year period. If, for example, £450 million is to be pledged tomorrow, this can be announced as the U.K.’s minimum contribution.

Johnson could also use the prospect of an additional contribution of £150 million — the amount required to achieve the U.K. target — as challenge funding.

This could be used to incentivize the leaders of other countries to increase their funding for GPE, on the basis that it will be matched by the U.K. It could also be used to match money donated by the U.K. public.

This would be an attractive offer for donor countries, such as New Zealand, which haven’t yet given to GPE. Under this proposal which I am sharing here, a country’s contribution as a new donor to GPE could be matched by the U.K., doubling our and their contribution.

The U.K. could also use this “top-up” funding to challenge those who have already pledged to come to the Education Summit in London in July with a top-up, which again the U.K. could match.

The GPE replenishment is a test of the international community’s preparedness to support the education of children living in the world’s low-income countries.

As the U.K. hosts the G-7 tomorrow and co-hosts the Education Summit in July with Kenya, it is critical that it passes that test. In doing so, it would lead the world in ensuring education is put at the heart of the international recovery from COVID-19.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Harriett Baldwin

    Harriett Baldwin is a member of U.K. Parliament. She is also chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Education and co-chair at the International Parliamentary Network for Education. She was minister for Africa in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and minister of state for international development, with responsibility for children, global education, and youths.