Radical inclusion in education
Over the past two centuries, education witnessed a global expansion through improved literacy, enhanced primary enrollment, and increased participation rates in secondary education. These global gains are now threatened amidst COVID-19. In February 2021, schools were shut for 1.6 billion learners worldwide and more than 60 million teachers confined to their homes. The world’s ability to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 – Quality Education – is at risk.
Even before the COVID pandemic, there was global consensus that education systems were not delivering quality education needed to ensure necessary skills for children, estimating that 90 percent of children in low-income countries fail to master the basic secondary-level skills needed to thrive in work and life and one in six children in poor countries fail to have skills in math and language. Already 1 in 3 adolescent girls from the poorest households around the world have never set foot in a classroom. Some 53 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read proficiently by age 10 and in the poorest countries (especially in sub Saharan Africa), fewer than 1 in 5 primary students are proficient in math and reading.
The pandemic has exacerbated the impact on learning. Children around the world have lost an average of one-third of a year’s education due to school closures and for many, there is a significant lack of access to remote learning, the only tool for continuity of education.
Digital learning has the potential to promote equity, expand access, improve learner’s engagement, and enhance teaching. But this potential is not being fulfilled and the resulting learning loss and increased dropout rates mean this generation of students stand to lose an estimated $10 trillion in earnings, or almost 10 percent of global GDP, while “learning poverty” could increase by 10 percentage points to 63 percent. The impact on sub-Saharan Africa is grave, with many countries already, pre-COVID, having more than half of children of primary school age out of school, and the highest rate of out-of-school adolescents (37 percent). In addition, for every 100 boys of primary school age out of school, there are 123 girls denied the right to education.
Every child, no matter their background or ability, has the right to a quality education. This right is made clear in Articles 28 and 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Sierra Leone is a proud signatory to the Convention, underpinning our commitment to education in our 1991 Constitution. We understand that education is not a gift to be given to those whose circumstances allow for it; it is the right of all who are part of and who will contribute to our global society. And under the leadership of H.E President Bio, I take my responsibility as a duty-bearer of this right seriously.
While legislation is clear, the reality is less so. I have seen this in my own country, where poverty, gender, and disability all act as barriers to education. But these challenges to access and quality education must be seen as calls to action, not as paralysers of progress. We require a global recommitment to the promises we have made to our children. We need a commitment to radical inclusion so we can reach every child with their right to education.
Radical inclusion necessitates a last-first approach. In Sierra Leone, we focus in particular on girls (including pregnant girls and parent learners), children with disabilities, and those left behind through poverty or geography.
A vision of radical inclusion in education
What do we mean by radical inclusion? A central focus on radical inclusion necessitates a last-first approach, putting the most marginalised children at the heart of our policymaking. In Sierra Leone, we focus in particular on girls (including pregnant girls and parent learners), children with disabilities (physical, cognitive and psycho-social), and those left behind through poverty or geography. These children are the most vulnerable and marginalised and need the greatest support to realise their potential. An expanded view of inclusion, one that speaks of every child’s right to a quality education, is inarguable legally and morally. It is critical to ensure there are no political obstacles for certain groups of children. Every child, every day, everywhere, and at every level. It is that simple.
Radical inclusion also necessitates a rethink of the needs of children who face particular obstacles. Flexible and inclusive structures– in terms of infrastructure, curriculum, and school environment – prevent children from facing barriers that could see them miss out on their right to education. For example, returning new parents in school will need specific support, as will learners with disabilities in non-special schools. Let us build a staircase to the future. We should never create a system where missing a step means missing out for good.
Fragile systems require strong solutions
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our education and eco-systems. The future is not stable for every child, and the risk of being out of school is only likely to increase as the impacts of climate change intensify. Already, floods, storms, droughts, and other disasters are keeping children out of school and forcing families to flee their homes. As these impacts worsen, the need to ensure our systems are built flexibly and inclusively will only increase. A policy of radical inclusion, once again, becomes the only pathway to success.
When children do enter the classroom, they must also be provided with an education that is fit for the 21st century. Far ahead of its time, Article 29 of the UNCRC sets out the purposes of education – that education should not only develop children’s mental and physical abilities, but also their respect for human rights, cultural identity, language, national values, and the natural environment, preparing young people for life in a free society. This should be the touchstone for any vision of education – a view to developing children as active members of free and open societies.
These principles are critical to empowering and supporting the next generation as they set the course of their lives. Already, children are speaking up about climate change and using their voices to demand action. We must listen to them and create safe spaces for their voices to be heard. Children must have the opportunity to learn about all aspects of life to ensure they have the skills to be active citizens in our global community. That means digital skills, critical thinking, creativity, interpersonal skills, respect for all, and social and emotional skills. A holistic education that sets children up for life as civic individuals is critical to children’s full realisation of their rights and potential in our modern world.
Investing in our futures
Education is a pillar to the economic and social development of societies. As such, education financing should be seen as an investment rather than an expenditure. No venture begins without investment. Education is the critical groundwork for national and global development. But at a time when investment has never been more critical, countries often see education as a luxury they cannot afford. This is a fundamentally flawed approach. During the pandemic, Sierra Leone is one of the few countries that has expanded its education budget, investing in teacher financing and learning materials, in spite of our economic challenges, because we see education as an investment in our society, and we know we will see the returns on this investment in the years to come. When you invest in people, they show up. Despite the pandemic, children turned up to scheduled exams, and many more returned to classrooms when fully reopened, recognising the efforts the Government made to continue learning in the context of a health crisis. This is investment in potential, in skills, in civics, to build a better world for all.
Investment must happen at all levels. The Global Education Summit in 2021 offers a unique moment to commit to investing in the future of our children. For the UK to lead a successful replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education would make clear that nothing – not even a pandemic – can tear apart our commitment to the rights and futures of every child. Every country has a role to play. From donors such as the UK to partners such as Sierra Leone, we can all commit to increasing funds for global education. We in Sierra Leone know that it can be done from experience. We hope others will join us in this pursuit.
Article 29 of the UNCRC sets out the purposes of education – not only to develop children’s mental and physical abilities, but also their respect for human rights, cultural identity, values, and the environment, preparing young people for life in a free society. This should be the touchstone for any vision of education.
The view from Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone has one of the youngest populations in Africa, with approximately 48 per cent under 18. The country ranked 182 out of 189 on the 2020 Human Development Index, with 60% living in poverty. There is strong political commitment to address these challenges and to safeguard the rights of children starting at the highest level and is evidenced at all levels of government.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education for approximately 2.6 million children last year as schools were closed. The MBSSE immediately reactivated measures used during the Ebola crisis to ensure all children could access education, including a national radio programme, including life skills programming to provide important psychosocial support for children. To ensure that students were still able to progress to the next grade level, it was important to temporarily open for exam preparation and for the national exams to be conducted. All schools were supported with emergency preparedness training and infection control and prevention measures; and those who returned to take examinations were provided with food.
In addition to my portfolio as Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, I also serve as the country’s Chief Innovation Officer. This means the Ministry has a priority on digitization and technology. For example, digital data collection allows gender and other disaggregated datasets to be analysed in real-time for effective decision making. The government has made a commitment to provide internet to all 11,000 schools and their nearby communities. As we implement the new curriculum focusing on computational thinking, critical thinking, creativity, comprehension and civics, we must provide the connectivity required for quality teaching and learning.
Having grown up in Sierra Leone and seeing the challenges brought by school closures during the civil war and the Ebola crisis, I understand and fully embrace the importance of ensuring that all children, and especially marginalized children are guaranteed their rights, including a quality education.
As a student, I attended state schools, experiencing first-hand overcrowded classrooms and inadequate infrastructure. My parents encouraged me to be inquisitive and to push myself intellectually. My father worked for UNICEF in Sierra Leone and his commitment to children’s rights instilled in me a strong commitment to work for the country, striving to ensure the rights of all citizens, especially children are respected.
My vision is one of transforming the education system in Sierra Leone in the coming years, ensuring that everyone – children from marginalized areas, poor households, pregnant girls, student parents, both boys and girls, mentally and physically challenged children and children affected by emergency or trauma has access to quality education. A minority of students receiving high marks is not what will transform Sierra Leone, nor it is indicative of quality education. This responsibility rests with all of us – government authorities, parents, children, community leaders, policy makers, donors, and the private sector. Together we can transform education for all children.
Children must have the opportunity to learn the skills to be active citizens in our global community – digital skills, critical thinking, creativity, interpersonal skills, respect, and social and emotional skills
A year of summits, a time for action
2021 is a Year of Summits. Many of these have the UK as host or leading participant. The call to invest in education is at the centre of every one of the issues under discussion in this vital year, as we continue on our course towards the SDG targets for 2030, in spite of the pandemic. The G7 in June, under the presidency of the UK, is an opportunity for the world’s leading economies to reflect on how to get the global economy back on track. There can be no more vital component in this effort than investment in education and commitment to the rights and wellbeing of the world’s children and of future generations who must be equipped to face the challenges, and seize the opportunities, ahead.
Children cannot learn if they are hungry, and we know that poor nutrition among mothers and in children during the first 1000 days from conception can lead to irreversible damage to a child’s chances in life, to their success in learning and hence to their future livelihoods and those of their families, communities, societies and national economies. The 2021 World Food Systems Summit, and the Nutrition for Growth Summit (in Japan in December), follow on from the first N4G hosted by the UK in 2013 where vital pledges were made to tackle malnutrition. The Lancet has estimated that there could be 6·7 million more children with wasting in 2020 compared with projections without COVID-19. Educational outcomes suffer when malnutrition rises, yet education is also an essential component of the solution to future food security as we seek to build a global society in which no child goes to bed hungry, in which we have the skills to tackle future pandemics and crises, and in which every family can prosper. This is why we have recently started implementing our integrated home-grown school feeding policy in Sierra Leone.
We also face the climate emergency and this year’s COP26, hosted by the UK in Glasgow, is perhaps the most important yet. In Sierra Leone we are already seeing the adverse impacts of climate change on livelihoods. Across the world, as families are displaced and challenged by the climate crisis, children are in danger of being taken out of school for work or early marriage or through illness or poverty. These children too must be a part of a radical inclusion policy. We also need to ensure that urgent and effective action is taking by the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases so that the numbers of children whose futures are blighted can be minimised. Young people are at the forefront of the global campaign to tackle the climate emergency. We must listen to them, empower them, and ensure that we fulfil the Article 29 commitment to educate children in “respect for the natural environment”. Environmental education and human rights education are fundamental to the future of education and of the global good.
As the UK takes its leadership role in the Year of Summits, the world needs a Global Britain that puts education, built on the foundations of children’s rights and the principles of radical inclusion, at the heart of its vision. A vision built on the foundations of Article 29 coincides with the UK Government’s focus on gender equity, education for democratic societies, mental health, and respect for the environment. The UK can use its Presidency of the G7 and its co-hosting role in the Global Education Summit to advance this vision for education. It can also use its Presidency of COP26 to highlight and support the importance of environmental education and youth engagement, and its participation in N4G to help ensure that children have the nutrition necessary for educational success.
2021 offers a unique opportunity for the world to begin to “build back better” after the disruptions to education brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, based on the vision and principles of the CRC, to help meet the SDGs and build a safe, sustainable, just and empowering world for the coming generations.
Please note that the views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of UNICEF UK.
 50 percent of children in middle-income countries, and 30 percent of children in high-income countries.