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Helen Grant MP: Why quality education for girls is vital

Focus on learning

Helen Grant MP: Why quality education for girls is vital

In an exclusive interview, the UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Girls’ Education, Helen Grant MP, talks to New African about the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Summit in July and the urgent need to raise $5bn to support education systems across the world.

Kenya and the UK will host the high-level Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Summit in the UK in July this year. The aim is to develop solutions and programmes to ensure every child has access to education. In March, Helen Grant, the UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Girls’ Education (as well the UK Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Nigeria) talked to New African about her work in promoting secondary education for girls across the world and why the GPE Summit needs to raise $5bn. 

What is the July Summit all about?

The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Summit, which we’re co-hosting, is a big financing summit and the aim is that we work very hard with our international partners to raise at least $5bn over five years for children’s education. 

If we’re able to achieve that, then the GPE can do some pretty amazing transformational things that will really help young people.

If we reach this target, we can provide 175m children with better learning in 87 lower income countries, and in the longer term too, it could add $164bn to economies in the developing world and lift millions of people out of poverty.

You are overseeing the ‘12 years’ quality education for every girl’ initiative. Why is it important to have the full 12 years of education; what difference does that really make?

It’s in that secondary education cycle that you gain those other skills that you need to get good jobs and participate fully in society. 

I remember what stage I was at after my primary education and in many ways it was the secondary side of things, those additional years, when things really started to happen for me. But it’s not just the 12 years, we are focusing on quality education.

How can that be achieved?

It depends on a lot of things. In terms of the girls’ education programme we’ve been working on, our experience has shown us that teacher training is extremely important. 

But enabling girls to get the 12 years’ education is not just about learning. It’s also about dealing with many of the barriers and hurdles that girls face in being able to get to school and stay at school. 

So our programme focuses on learning, good quality learning, but also addresses many of the barriers that girls face in getting to school. 

With this, it allows for the improvements in teacher training, school governance reforms and changes in policy to ensure that girls will be able to continue to stay at school and learn even if they fall pregnant. 

In addition to that, there are other aspects which include things like girls’ clubs, the provision of bicycles to enable girls to get to school more quickly and in a safer way, and menstrual hygiene kits as well.

Just after International Women’s Day, I was speaking to one of the amazing GPE Youth Ambassadors, a girl from Kenya called Cynthia, who spoke about climate change and classrooms being flooded, and hippos and crocodiles in the actual classroom itself as a result!

At the other extreme, she spoke of droughts, and a shortage of water on the premises. Without clean water, girls who are menstruating can’t go to school because they can’t wash. That meant in effect, they were missing schooling for around a week in every month of the year.

This programme is very practical, dealing with helpful elements so the girls can go to school and stay at school – as well as focusing on improving learning, improving standards and on improving safeguarding.

Above: Helen Grant gets to know the local youth on a visit to Uganda. 

What trends do you see from the pandemic; have dropout rates increased?

The pandemic has had a terrible effect.  There was a learning crisis before the pandemic but the pandemic has certainly made things worse.

It has disrupted the learning of approximately 1.6bn children at its peak in 2020.  Many of these children are girls, many of them will not return to school, lowering their chances of getting good jobs and having good livelihoods. Out of school, girls are at risk of all sorts of other issues such as forced marriage, early marriage, FGM, violence and human trafficking. All this could lead to a lost generation of girls. So, yes indeed, it is a massive worry.

As far as the UK is concerned, we’ve already adjusted some of our aid programmes to make sure funding goes to organisations like UNICEF and Education Can’t Wait, and that’s why our Prime Minister Boris Johnson has put girls’ education at the very heart of the G7 summit.

How can we get more financing towards education; can we bring in the private sector? 

I’m glad you’ve touched on collaboration with the private sector. There are many enablers, vital enablers to girls’ education. 

It’s estimated that Covid has increased the funding gap for SDG4 to almost $200bn per annum over the next 10 years, which is a huge amount of money.

I believe that the private sector has an important role to play in addressing this and I really want them to step up and step in and be the force for good that I know they can actually be. 

It’s also the smart thing for them to do on a commercial level. Businesses need, for example, a thriving educated workforce to produce the scientists and the designers and the educators of the future. 

There was one piece of research that suggests that 40% of employers world-wide were having difficulty recruiting people with the skills that they actually need.

A significant amount of my time in the run-up to the GPE summit and COP26 will involve talking to business leaders, engaging with them to help us achieve our goals, very important goals that are good on all sorts of different levels, but very good for business too.

Why is it important that the voice of the youth is heard?

Speaking and listening to young women and girls about what they say they want and need is an absolute priority for me – be it safer roads for safer walking to school, free sanitary products to help with confidence over school attendance, or separate toilets for privacy. 

The chat I had with the GPE Youth Ambassador was incredible. These youth ambassadors are full of self-belief and determination and they knew through the power of education that they could be anything that they wanted to be, lawyers, doctors, journalists, teachers – that they could do it. 

So, my attitude is that we need to put that same level of self-belief and determination into championing 12 years’ quality education for every girl. 

You are also the Trade Envoy for Nigeria.  What more can be done in terms of collaboration between the UK and Nigeria?

Nigeria is an amazing country. I have to tell you it’s very close to my heart, my father is Nigerian, my mother is English and I’m extremely proud of both my British heritage and my Nigerian heritage and I do really get excited every time I step off the plane there because of the people, the vibrancy, the whole opportunity of the nation. 

The particular opportunity that I see, is technology. If you’ve been there you will know that in Nigeria there is already a thriving tech ecosystem, and brilliant entrepreneurs; the UK is already a global tech leader and the UK can be the perfect partner of choice for Nigeria in this space.

Read more education articles from New African magazine in our Focus on Education section.

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