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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


International Women’s Day: what now for girls’ access to education around the world?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 5 March 2021

IOE Events.

For our latest public debate we returned to the matter of Covid-19, this time the pandemic’s impact on girls’ access to education in the developing world. To assess that impact and the immense task of ‘building back better’, we were joined by an international panel of leading figures from the development community: Alice Albright, CEO of the Global Partnership for Education; Marelize Gorgens, Senior Specialist at the World Bank; Girish Menon, CEO of STiR Education; and Elaine Unterhalter, Professor of Education and International Development, and Co-Director of the Centre for Education and International Development (CEID), at the IOE.  You can find out more about our speakers here.

The task is a profound and urgent one, with estimates that around 24 million girls will never return to school following the pandemic, with marked and long-term consequences. This is in addition to those who were already outside education. As with much else, the pandemic has exposed existing fault lines in relation to girls’ education around the world. What was striking from the discussion was how much had previously been placed on the shoulders of girls’ education in isolation and how the limitations of that strategy were now even more clear to see.

In that vein, our discussion drew out three main themes: developing the standing of teaching and the teaching profession; learning from other fields, particularly health and, in particular, its use of digital technology; but also more fundamental considerations of connecting education to broader social policy.

In many countries, the profession of teaching continues to receive poor recognition and remains an occupation of last resort. Female teachers and officials are important role models for girls, but their access to technology and professional training can be precarious, and they are often be burdened with caring responsibilities. In each case, this requires more concerted system change to alter attitudes and establish an intrinsic motivation to value and contribute to children’s education.

As for the new solutions offered by digital technology, here the education sector can benefit from the lessons already hard won in healthcare. These span matters of principle and practicality: the need to see families as participants, not subjects; to focus on the users, what they know and how they use digital technology; to respect data privacy and consent; prioritise the inter-operability of systems and platforms; and take advantage of developments in machine learning to monitor, evaluate and improve services in a timely way. Sat beneath all of this is the vital need to address inequalities in access to digital technology, even more so given that the jobs market of the future will be digital. Girls need these skills.

On education, the development community has moved from a focus on equity in the number of boys and girls in school to a focus on equality of access, setting ambitions even higher. But it is also emphasising the need for a ‘human development model’ that brings together education, gender, social protection, jobs and health.  For decades, girls’ education has been positioned as the solution to a range of major societal challenges, including the biggest of them all: securing economic growth and addressing climate change. Yet, seeing education as the solution to social and economic change asked too much of it.

The ‘post-Covid’ context, even more than the one that preceded it, needs a holistic policy approach rooted in addressing inequalities. An unresolved question is the role played by the associated narrative of the educated girl as saviour: where girls are mentioned at all now they are presented as victims – of violence, hunger, early marriage.

While this is a perilous context for girls’ education, there are glimmers of hope, in the renewed ambition for equality of access, the opportunities afforded by new technology, and the now unquestionable limitations of past approaches.  Ultimately, progress rests on a switch in outlook, from ‘What will educated girls do for us?’ to ‘What will we do for girls?’, as well as, more broadly, giving esteem to the poorest and listening to their needs.  But Covid is ever present: efforts in relation to education and social policy will need to be underpinned, as a first step, by a vaccination strategy that recognises that no one is safe until everyone is.

Watch the debate here.

Up next: VIRTUAL EVENT: What if… we wanted to better equip young people to address climate change? 18 March 2021, 5.45pm–6.45pm Register here


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