What could be achieved with four and a half day’s military spending?

It should surely be obvious!

It should surely be obvious!

Twenty two billion US dollars sounds like a vast sum of money to me; such figures are quite frankly beyond my understanding. But this apparently is the sum that it is estimated would need to be spent annually for the next few years in order to achieve the Education for All goals. This amount of money, so it is reported, would ensure global provision for universal primary education, would see more girls attending and completing school, and would increase educational opportunities for children living in some of the world’s poorest countries. Such a figure could help to achieve a goal to which governments all around the world subscribed in 2000, but one that continues to cause concern and which in some countries is nowhere near being accomplished.

If twenty two billion US dollars per annum is what is required, it is hardly surprising that it so difficult to make progress in this area. After all, such a huge sum of money needs to be provided by wealthier countries, many of whom declare that they are currently facing their own economic challenges. And for those of us who deal with sums of money seldom exceeding the equivalent a few hundred US dollars, twenty two billion is largely beyond our comprehension. I was therefore amazed yesterday when reading a report from the recently held Oslo Summit on Education for Development, which quoted a speech by the Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi in which he states that twenty two billion US dollars is the equivalent of just 4 ½ days of the level of current military spending around the globe.

This statistics seemed to me quite astounding. Surely Kailash Satyarthi, for all of his authority and despite being a man held in such international respect, must have made a mistake. Could this figure be a true representation of the gulf between spending to improve the lives of children, and the development and deployment of weaponry aimed at destruction? Well yes, it turns out, his figures are correct. A search of official international government spending sources reveals that around twenty two billion US dollars is spent on armaments and other military spending every four and a half days.

Kailash Satyarthi in a statement to the Oslo meeting stated that:-

“The best defence is investment in education. If we had invested in education, the world would be much safer today. Education is not only the key to sustainable development, but also the best shield to defend against terrorism, insurgencies and other obstacles that impede the progress of humankind.”

I find myself, not for the first time, largely in agreement with views expressed by this great children’s rights activist.

Of course, it would be naïve to believe that countries will give up their focus upon spending on military equipment and armaments, particularly at what is seen as a dangerous time in many parts of the world. But Kailash Satyarthi makes a valid point when he suggests that should more of this money be directed at education, it might address some of the issues of poverty, greed, envy and deprivation which are the source of many of the conflicts which currently form a blight on a number of societies.

It can be argued with a degree of confidence,  that significant progress has been made towards achieving the Education for All goals in some parts of the world. India, is an example of one country where the educational opportunities for many, though not all children, have certainly increased. However it might be worth asking questions about why international aid to basic education was cut by almost 10% between 2010 and 2012, yet there has been a steady increase in military spending over the same period. Whilst some countries have benefited significantly from support to improve schooling, others, such as Burkina Faso have lost more than 50% of the aid provided for basic education. Other regions of the world are currently being devastated , and schools destroyed in part through use of the many billions of US dollars being allocated for military purposes.

Satyarthi points out that at this time only 4 per cent of all Overseas Development Assistance is targeted at education. He makes a good case for this being increased to a minimum of 15 per cent. However, he is realistic enough to know that this is not going to happen overnight.

I was motivated to write this piece partly because of my own appalling levels of ignorance in respect of the figures above related to educational aid and military spending. I found myself asking the question, If I am so lacking in appreciation of this situation, how can I expect others who are not so directly involved in education to know what is going on in the world?

The scientists William Moerner, Brian Schmidt and Elizabeth Blackburn, who are also Nobel Prize winners, along with a number of other eminent individuals wrote an open letter to the Oslo Summit  in which they pleaded for a change in this situation. In this letter they say:-

“We urge the international community to loosen the purse strings for the future of our children, to protect them from exploitation and violence, and to invest in their education.”

Does it really demand the learning and intelligence of Nobel Prize winners to make us understand that spending so little on providing basic education  when compared to that spent on military development is a denial of the basic human needs of so many children and future generations? If this really is the case, then those of us who consider ourselves to be “educated” are destined to continue to demonstrate our ignorance.

 

Hoping for more than a declaration of intent.

Expressions of good intent. Let's hope they come to fruition

Expressions of good intent. Let’s hope they come to fruition

Last week in Incheon, in the Republic of Korea, government ministers from more than 100 countries, along with representatives of non-governmental organizations and youth groups met at the World Education Forum. The focus of discussions at this meeting was for the most part upon how the right to free and quality education can be provided for all the world’s children, including the 58 million who currently have no access to school.

Speakers representing august organisations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Bank Group took to the stage to assert their commitment to improving the lives of children and keeping education high on the world development agenda, until such time as all children have gained the right to go to school. The sentiments expressed were sincere and I have no doubt that the conference delegates will have returned home fired with a new determination to bring about change. Ringing in their ears will be the latest declaration asserting the intention to ensure “equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030”.

I describe this Incheon Declaration as the “latest” as it follows hot on the heels of previous such statements including Jomtien, Thailand (1990), Salamanca, Spain (1994) and Dakar, Senegal (2000), all of which have been signed with due solemnity and good intentions by world leaders with the intention of improving the plight of the world’s children. The Education for All goals, with clearly defined targets towards achieving universal primary education have provided an important focus for education policy makers, children’s rights activists and politicians around the world. But I can well understand those who on reading the Incheon Declaration will ask whether by simply writing yet another aspirational document progress will be assured.

One delegate at the Incheon forum who has greeted the new declaration with words of both encouragement and caution is the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and children’s rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi from India. Speaking to the gathered audience he reminded them that when they met in Dakar fifteen years ago they established goals that were then seen as attainable, but he reflects upon the intervening period with mixed feelings. Satyarthi described how new opportunities for education has transformed the lives of some individuals in his own country, but he also reflected on the fact that it is already too late to transform the lives of many children who are  trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and gruelling child labour. One of the most powerful statements that Satyarthi made to the forum was that he refuses to accept any of the excuses that continue to be made in defence of denying children access to school and that others should do the same.

Whilst Kailash Satyarthi demonstrated a great deal of frustration at the failure to deliver on previously expressed goals, which should by now have benefited millions of excluded  children, he still believes that a concerted effort on the part of those who are concerned could result in educational opportunities for all. Whilst praising the intentions of those world leaders who have supported this latest international declaration, Satyarthi leads by example through his recognition that if progress is to be made it will be on the basis of actions taken by individuals as much as through legislation. We could all do worse than follow in his footsteps.

When reading about events such as that held in Incheon it is easy to become cynical and to believe that this is yet one more talking shop from which little of substance will emerge. However, if just a few individuals are inspired by the words expressed with such passion by Kailash Satyarthi, and decide to take affirmative action on behalf of children, the World Education Forum will have been worthwhile.

You can hear the presentation given to the World Education Forum by Kailash Satyarthi here

 

The responsible education researcher

 

Dr Marli Vizim (in the pink top) sharing her views on poverty and school exclusion with colleagues from Brazil and the UK.

Dr Marli Vizim (in the pink top) sharing her views on poverty and school exclusion with colleagues from Brazil and the UK.

 

Whilst working last week with colleagues from both the UK and Brazil I often found myself thinking that whilst we work in very different countries and have contrasting cultural backgrounds, there is much that we have in common with respect to the educational issues that we face. Everyone in attendance at this research focused event was committed to promoting more inclusive education and the establishment of social justice, and we all face similar challenges in achieving our objectives.

Listening to the presentations given at this three day workshop and more especially during conversations with researchers from both countries, it was evident that the usual anxieties about inadequately prepared teaching staff, poor resourcing and low expectations of students as obstacles to inclusion, formed the basis of discussion. Similarly, the disparity between urban and rural educational opportunities and the impact of economic difficulties was apparent in many of the sessions we shared. At times I found myself reflecting on the fact that these are recurrent themes that I have heard not only in the UK and Brazil, but during recent visits to China, India, Georgia and Ireland. I have no doubt that similar frustrations would be raised in most of the world.

Of all the issues of concern, one that certainly troubles me most was highlighted in an excellent paper given by Marli Vizim, who is committed to working with some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in São Paulo State. Clearly influenced by the work of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Friere, Marli describes how she has tried to work with whole communities, and in particular the leaders of these groups, in an effort to foster positive attitudes to schooling, and increased opportunities for children. In particular she has demonstrated the importance of gaining the support of community leaders in order to get children previously seen as ineducable into schools. The passion with which Marli speaks and her willingness to engage in discussion and debate was encouraging and heartening. The fervency that she feels for her work is something that cannot fail to touch anyone who has a social conscience and wishes to see the lives of children and their families improved.

In a discussion group comprising colleagues from both Brazil and the UK it was easier to find similarities in our areas of concern than differences. As Marli indicated the increasing gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in Brazil, so did colleagues from the UK provide examples of a similar concern in our own country. Several of us were also able to relate this worrying trend to work we have done in other parts of the world. Whilst I have seen this increasing distance created between the wealthy and poor in India, other colleagues spoke eloquently about the same situation seen in Colombia and elsewhere in the world. Working through an interpreter always has the risk of ideas being confused during translation, but there was no doubting the level of concern and frustration with regards to current provision made for children from poorer sections of society being expressed in these sessions.

The authors of the 2014 UNESCO Global Report on the Education for All Goals, discussed previously on this blog (Feb 4th 2014), were careful to emphasise the progress that has been made towards achieving universal primary education. However, it is clear from the report that one of the greatest obstacles to making effective progress is poverty. Whilst the poverty that we see in the UK is nowhere near as widespread and pervasive as that seen in many poorer countries, this does not justify a denial of the damaging impact that it has on families. Listening to Marli speaking about the continuous struggle that some of the families face in the areas where she works, emphasised the potential for social unrest that is ever present, and could worsen if the needs of the most disenfranchised members of society are not addressed.

During my brief visit to Brazil it was apparent, just as it is here in the UK or when I work in Ireland or India, that there are many businesses and individuals that are thriving and creating considerable wealth. The economies of these countries have clearly benefited from the evident entrepreneurship and hard work of these individuals and their employees. However, just as the opportunities for the most educated and socially well connected people in these countries have increased, so have the difficulties faced by the poorest communities multiplied.

Fortunately researchers such as Marli, who recognise that they have a responsibility beyond investigating the communities with which they are involved, are having an impact. The results from her research indicate that expectations are being raised and demands for improved educational opportunities made in the areas where she works. Slowly this action is  bringing about change, and hopefully the lives of the families to whom she has made a commitment will improve.

The responsible educational researcher is one who recognises, that unless their investigation focuses upon improvements in the educational opportunities for children, families and teachers, it is probably of limited value.

 

 

Education and business can be uncomfortable bed fellows

 

How can we be sure of the motivations of those who see education as a business opportunity.

How can we be sure of the motivations of those who see education as a business opportunity.

Dr Kishore Singh who is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, recently expressed his concern that universal access to education is in danger of being inhibited because of current proposals being considered in a number of African nations. Government authorities in several of these countries have recently been considering the delegation of fundamental education services to the private sector, in what Dr Singh perceives to be an effort to reduce spending on education.

Dr Singh, who has a background in law, is well versed in the challenges of working towards the achievement of the rights of all children to receive an education, having held a post of responsibility for overseeing the right to education at UNESCO for many years. He has been involved in a number of campaigns in this area, and has been recognised for being outspoken on issues such as the eradication of corporal punishment, and violence towards children. His experience and knowledge is such that we should be prepared to listen attentively when he expresses his concern that children are in danger of being denied learning opportunities because of poor governance.

Whilst expressing his apprehensions about current developments in Africa, Dr Singh was also aware of similar moves elsewhere in the world. The actions identified by this United Nations expert as being of concern, include those of  the Society of Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan and the Independent Schools Federation of India, who have recently challenged India’s Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE), by suggesting that it violates their autonomy and places a strain upon their resources. There is, of course, an element of genuine concern in such arguments. In countries that are challenged by difficult socio-economic circumstances, where making progress in the provision of education is always going to be accompanied by tensions. However, as Dr Singh states:

“Education is not a privilege of the rich and well-to-do; it is an inalienable right of every child. Provision of basic education free of costs is a core obligation of States.”

Why should Dr Kishore Singh be concerned? If the private sector is willing to provide education for children, shouldn’t the state be encouraged to support such an initiative? It is certainly true to say that there are many excellent private schools, some run by NGOs, others by charitable trusts and even some by wealthy philanthropists, which are doing excellent work in this field. I am sure that Dr Singh recognises this, but he is right to express his apprehensions.

In particular there are concerns that once the state abdicates responsibility for the education of its children, it loses control of the ability to ensure that the quality of schooling is high, and that the curriculum and other procedures are fit for purpose. Where things go wrong, if the state has no oversight and no available sanctions, there is little opportunity for redress. There must also be questions asked about the motivations of those who choose to develop private educational institutions. There are many instances where such schools have been run purely on business lines, with a focus upon making profit, and others where they have been seen as the means of promoting a doctrine which may not always be in the interests of the children or communities which they claim to support. In countries where private schooling sits comfortably alongside that provided by the state, there are well established elements of quality assurance and control, overseen by national governments, to which all schools must adhere. Where such procedures are ignored, this can lead to major injustices and the exclusion of significant elements of the population from schooling.

Where schools are managed in order to make a profit, they are usually dependent upon contributions from the wealthiest sections of society. The children of affluent families tend to be warmly welcomed by the management of these schools, those who come from more marginalised backgrounds less so. When these schools have endeavoured to provide for a proportion of children from poorer communities, or those who have been excluded because of disability or special educational needs, they have often been faced with opposition from those parents who believe that this will be to the detriment of their children.  In talking about the importance of providing parental choice, the managers and owners of these establishments are almost invariably considering the right to choice of only a small and largely advantaged section of the population.

It may, of course, be the case that Dr Kishore Singh’s anxieties are ill-founded. It could be the case that a beneficent and selfless organisation takes responsibility for schooling in a state, and is prepared to accept the guidance of a democratically elected government with regards to how provision for all children can be achieved. Sadly, I think that in expressing his concerns, Dr Singh is right in suggesting that the forfeiting of responsibility for ensuring that all children have access to education is a measure of the lack of commitment to equity and inclusion on the part of some governments.

Ensuring that Education for All becomes a reality was never going to be easy. It will be made even harder if governments fail to accept that it is their responsibility to effect change that will benefit all children.