Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Chair of the Board of Directors at the Global Partnership for Education outlines the priorities of the new Education Cannot Wait campaign and calls on Australian educators to lend their expertise to the cause.
Originally published in Teacher Magazine
As Prime Minister, I saw up close the impact of natural disasters on children and communities. Floods, cyclones and bushfires hit time and time again. No matter how well every household and every level of government prepared, sometimes nature’s capricious cruelty would take lives as well as destroying homes, schools, roads, bridges and other vital infrastructure.
Going to evacuation centres, many of them in school halls, I was always so proud of the spirit and generosity of my fellow Australians. Volunteers showed up, people gifted money, food and goods to help. Those in need would find a way of making the best of it all, even when that entailed sleeping on a floor at night and spending the day anxiously trying to piece their lives back together.
In the middle of all of this, I would make a beeline for the children to see how they were faring. While often suffering trauma from what they had lived through, they too showed incredible resilience. An entertainer, who volunteered to sing a few songs, perform some magic or be a clown, would always be rewarded by children’s laughter.
In our nation, while we can always get better, generally we have very good systems for making sure that, post the immediate phase of an emergency, children can quickly get back to school.
Now, as Chair of the Global Partnership for Education, I am able to appreciate anew how lucky we are to live in Australia, a nation where even when nature does its worst, we have the resources and capacity to support each other.
What does the data say?
For too many children, getting to go back to school after a crisis is a far away dream, not a reality. According to the Overseas Development Institute, 75 million children between the ages of three and 18 need educational support. These children live in 35 different countries and they are already out of school or at real risk of losing their tenuous hold on education.
Some of these children are in these circumstances because of natural disasters. For example, Nepal’s earthquake destroyed more than 25,000 classrooms.
But the actions of human beings, through war and conflict, have done even more damage. In these dreadful circumstances all children suffer but girls are most at risk, being 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys in countries affected by conflict.
Syria is the most visible example of children in crisis because of conflict, but there are many others.
In today’s world, with more people on the move since World War II and subject to so much seemingly intractable conflict, do we know how to make sure every child gets to go to school?
The answer today is a partial yes.
How are other countries tackling these issues?
Countries like Lebanon are showing what can be done even in the most difficult of circumstances. Since 2011, Lebanon has received around one million registered Syrian refugees. Actual numbers are likely to be more like 1.5 million.
When the refugee flow started, Lebanon had a population of around 4.4 million. Only around one third of its school age children were in the public school system with two thirds in non-government schools. Lebanon was embarking on a school quality improvement program.
But, as refugee numbers grew, everything changed. Lebanon determined to do all it could to offer schooling to Syrian children. With international support it double shifted its schools and created places for 157 000 children.
Yet, despite such a dramatic step, these efforts have to date proved insufficient with almost half the Syrian children in Lebanon still out of school.
Theirworld, an initiative of Gordon and Sarah Brown, has just recently released a report which puts a spotlight on what more needs to be done to support countries like Lebanon. Remarkably, in a report that details so many difficulties there is one stand out story of hope.
It is the story of Mohammed Kosha, a Syrian child who was out of school for a year but managed to get into an English language school in Lebanon. Mohammed did not speak much English but he spent hours each night using his father’s mobile phone to access a language dictionary so word by word he could translate his homework in to Arabic and then his answers in to English. Mohammed has just come second in all of Lebanon in the year nine national examination.
Stories of need and ones of hope have galvanised global attention on the vast problem of the loss of schooling because of conflict and natural disaster.
To try to find a way for the world to do better, I have been working over the past year with Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Education, and Anthony Lake, the head of UNICEF, under the auspices of the government of Norway, to build a mechanism that will generate and direct the necessary resources to create a world where no child will have her or his education interrupted because of an emergency or crisis.
What can Australian educators do?
This new fund and platform, called Education Cannot Wait, was launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May, together with an appeal for funding to get this initiative firmly underway this year. Already we have received support from governments and the private sector.
The Education Cannot Wait platform will help strengthen coordination and predictability for education support during crisis. It has to be based on strong collaboration amongst education partners. As the seemingly endless and horrific crisis in Syria has shown, support has to be multi-year and built around strengthening education systems in the places children now reside.
There is a clear recognition that while most of the work of Education Cannot Wait must be on action that makes a difference right now, we have agreed that a small percentage of the funding must go into working out how we can respond better. Knowledge and ideas will be sought from all parts of the world, including Australia.
Thankfully, we do not have domestic experience in educating children during conflict. But we do have experience in disaster recovery and knowledge of how information technology can make a difference in the most remote of settings.
It is these ideas we need and hope to collect. So please follow the work at educationcannotwait.org and contribute your ideas and advocacy.