Eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development.
United Nations Resolution 73/25
Living in a developed nation such as the UK, we are all, at times, guilty of taking things for granted; We expect there to be sufficient street lighting as we head home from work on a dark evening. We expect there to be fresh bread and milk for sale in the shops when we require them. We expect our bins to be emptied when we leave them out on the correct day and, as a society, we are often very quick to complain when these expectations are not met.
In the same way, we take for granted that everyone in the UK will have a basic grasp of literacy and numeracy, thanks to the fact that since The Elementary Education Act of 1891 primary education has been compulsory in the UK. After almost 130 years of compulsory education, it is almost impossible for us to imagine a society where the majority of people were illiterate or innumerate; A society where child labour removed any possibility of upward social mobility and where people died as a result of the ‘Giant Evils’ – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.
The right to an education is enshrined in article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which calls for free and compulsory elementary education for all children across the World. The declaration was written in 1948, in the aftermath of The Second World War when hopes were high that the World could become a better place through the adoption of basic Human rights including freedom of speech, religious tolerance, justice and access to effective healthcare and education. As Confucius said, ‘Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.’ Yet over 70 years later, The UN estimates that there are 265 million children and adolescents around the world who still do not have the opportunity to start or complete their education. More than a fifth of these children are of primary school age and the reasons for their exclusion from the education system include poverty, discrimination, armed conflict, migration, natural disasters and the effects of climate change. Across the World 258 million children and youth still do not attend school. 617 million children and adolescents cannot read or do basic maths. Less than 40% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa complete lower secondary school and some four million child refugees are out of school with little hope of returning to education.
In the light of these shocking statistics, the UN launched The International Day of Education in 2019, to ‘recognise and promote the pivotal role that education plays in lifting young people out of poverty. Indeed, it is in some of the very poorest parts of the World that a formal education, however basic it may be, is most valued, with students and their families seeing education as their best route out of the slums or agricultural poverty, breaking the cycle that is leaving millions of children and adults behind.
Unesco states that, ‘Education is a human right, a public good and a public responsibility,’ but in the UK there is also an air of entitlement when it comes to formal education and, in turn, education is not always valued as highly as it should be. When discussing school reforms, Head Teacher and blogger Katharine Birbalsingh spoke of visiting schools in Jamaica and India where pupils were ‘desperate to gain the kind of education to which pupils and parents in her own school in London were indifferent.’ Is it the case that students in the UK no longer see a good education as the path to future success?
Should we be surprised when we look at the idols our students aspire to be like? The plethora of You-Tubers, Vloggers and Online Gamers who dominate their social time. The seemingly never-ending list of reality TV shows that turn ‘ordinary’ young people into celebrities overnight. Shows such as The Kardashians, Love Island, TOWIE, Geordie Shore or Ex on the Beach which focus so much on appearance and lifestyle rather than talent or attainment.
A list of Highest Earners under the age of 30 compiled by The Independent in 2016 included Actors, Footballers, Pop Idols, Software developers, Property magnates and Online content creators. The millionaires featured on this list clearly demonstrate entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and talent, and I am certainly not disputing that any of these people have not worked hard to build their careers and fortunes, but do any of them really promote academic achievement or the benefits of working hard at school?
A 2015 survey by skills provider City & Guilds asked 3,154 young people aged 14-19 about their future career aspirations, mapping responses against the jobs expected to be available in 2022. It found a significant mismatch between what young people expected to do and what jobs were likely to be available. In fact, survey participants chose just 34% of these jobs, meaning two-thirds of those available were not chosen by anybody. Careers in Media, Psychology, Sports, Hair and Beauty continue to be popular choices even though the largest skills gaps are in Technology, Engineering, Digital and Life sciences. Further research from City and Guilds suggests that nine out of ten UK employers struggle to recruit skilled staff and two thirds predict that skills shortages worsen over the next three to five years. Shockingly, 51% of employers state that they have left a position vacant because they could not find an appropriate candidate.
If only Love Island pairings were based on skills…
Contrast this with a similar survey of over 5000 young people in India where just 3% of the country’s total working population is vocationally or professionally trained. 84% of respondents considered a post-graduate degree as a requirement for their ideal job, while 97% aspired to a degree in higher education. The survey participants cited Increased employment opportunities and higher wages are their main motivators for achieving for this goal. Whilst 34% of the young people surveyed reported that racial, social or gender discrimination in India was still major barrier when looking for a job, it was clear that traditionally held views are changing, with many young women expressing a wish to be in full time, professional work rather than being homemakers. Further proof if it was required of how access to an effective education can reform society and raise the aspirations of those previously limited or oppressed.
As Audrey Hepburn observed, ‘A quality education has the power to transform societies in a single generation, provide children with the protection they need from the hazards of poverty, labour exploitation and disease, and give them the knowledge, skills, and confidence to reach their full potential.’ – a sentiment shared by Robert Raikes when he initiated the Sunday School movement, Earl Shaftesbury when he established Ragged schools in the 19th century and Rab Butler when he proposed the Tripartite system and universal secondary education in 1944. Where there is universal education people have hope. Where there is universal education people have a choice.
Perhaps it is true that in the UK we become so used to having access to universal education that, just like street lighting, fresh milk and empty bins, we have come to take it for granted. Attending school has simply become part of life, perhaps even an annoyance for some! Education may be seen as right, not a privilege and there will be some students who will insist that it is their right to choose whether or not they engage with the education system. There will be those students who engage fully in the school curriculum and progress to further academic studies at University and there will be those students who leave formal education at the first possible opportunity to move onto a more vocational programme of learning. There will be some students who will see little value in a traditional curriculum or GCSE grades when they have their sights set on a future career as an online influencer, Professional Gamer or YouTube Beauty Vlogger and there will be some students who take the plunge into self-employment or entrepreneurialism. Whatever route our students take – they have had access to the information, guidance and support to make that choice for themselves. 258 million children across the World deserve the opportunity to make these choices for themselves too.
As Lupita Nyong’o once said, ‘No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.’ and as Patrice Motsepe wrote, ‘Education is at the heart of achieving your dreams.’
Written by Rebecca Clarke