Opinion: The UK needs to take a leading role in global education. Here's how.

A classroom at the Wat Bo Primary School in Cambodia. Photo by: Chor Sokunthea / GPE / CC BY-NC-ND

When the bells announce the arrival of 2018, Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt would do well to recite the famous line from the New Year poem In Memoriam by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

“Ring in the true” would be a fitting mantra to inspire her department to boast more about the effectiveness of U.K. aid.

Seldom reported, the facts speak volumes. Extreme poverty has dropped by more than half since 1990, and African countries have over the past decade seen growth rates developed countries can only dream of. That’s good news for both Africa’s booming youth — the continent’s population will double to over 2 billion by 2030 — and for global stability.

Meanwhile, AIDS-related deaths have been cut in half since their peak in 2005 and 9.6 million lives have been saved due to more accessible treatment. Increased prevention and control measures have led to a 29 percent reduction in malaria mortality rates globally since 2010.

Developing countries have been the main architects of this progress, but donors such as the U.K. have also played a major role; the Overseas Development Institute studied 50 cases over five years and found progress occurred alongside aid and advice from external donors. Aid helped because it meant people had to pay less for services such as health and education, the two key pillars crucial for economic development to take hold and make long-term changes to lives and communities, allowing stability and prosperity to prevail.

Funding innovative health and education programs has put the U.K. at the vanguard of poverty alleviation and prevention, a role we can be proud of.

Only the U.S. and the World Bank give more to education than the U.K., and since 2015 U.K. aid has supported 7 million children in getting an education, with that number was predicted to rise to 11 million by 2020.

But this year, UNESCO identified a worrying global trend showing donors were giving less aid money to education, with the U.K.’s allocation shrinking from 13 percent of total aid in 2012 to 8 percent in 2016. This downward shift must be urgently arrested if the remarkable work to date is to be preserved and built upon, more so because the pressure to provide a good, basic education — especially for girls — remains immense.

More than 130 million girls are still out of school globally — that’s twice the population of the U.K. — because of a combination of lack of funding and cultural barriers. And many of those in school are not learning as well as they should. In northern Ghana, for example, forthcoming ODI research will show that the pass rate for girls in secondary mathematics exams is only 16 percent, compared to 86 percent for boys in greater Accra.

The U.K., with its respected expertise and revered reputation for delivering effective aid, must lead by example and take back the education initiative.

That’s why the ONE Campaign is calling on the new Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt to signal her intent to make poverty history by pledging significantly to the Global Partnership for Education in February.

A pledge of 380.8 million pounds ($500 million) would help 4.75 million more children complete primary school and would help those already in school to learn more. This would be a wise investment. Between 2002 and 2015, GPE’s support helped get 72 million more children in to primary school in recipient countries, who are required to invest 20 percent of their domestic spending budgets in education.

Education is the missing economic development building block in the most fragile countries. And specifically, when girls get an education, prosperity and stability follow; the impact of addressing the gender gap in education could yield between $112 and $152 billion a year to developing countries, a ONE study shows.

The need for the U.K. to take the lead and invest in education has never been greater — a fact that will ring true in 2018 and beyond.

Read more Devex coverage on education.

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

About the author

  • Romilly Greenhill

    Romilly Greenhill is the U.K. director of the One Campaign. Romilly has 18 years of experience of working in international development, including in leadership roles at the Overseas Development Institute and DFID. She has also worked for ActionAid UK and Cambodia, the Ugandan Finance Ministry, and the New Economics Foundation.