“Education is a human right, a public good and a public responsibility”UNESCO
Today the world is celebrating the fourth International Day of Education. Education has been a hot topic in Australian politics over the last few weeks as state governments debate delaying the start of the school year due to Covid concerns, but we have always been able to take for granted that our children will be able to access primary, secondary, and even tertiary education. Sadly, that is not the case for many children in other parts of the world.
According to the United Nations
- 258 million children still do not have the opportunity to attend school
- 617 million children and adolescents cannot read or do basic math
- Less than 40% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa complete secondary school
- 4 million children and youth refugees are out of school
- 750 million adults are illiterate
We know that education is critical to breaking the poverty cycle. We also know that education is an important mechanism for overcoming gender inequality. Without access to education, millions of people, and especially women, are marginalised, experience discrimination, and are trapped in vicious cycles of poverty, poor health, and violence. Since 1960 the United Nations has prioritised access to free and compulsory education as a basic human right and yet there are still so many for whom this is just a dream.
In our own country, where access to education is guaranteed, teachers are disrespected, overworked and undervalued, and some classrooms are little more than battlegrounds. There are students who couldn’t care less about learning and who can’t wait to leave school, while on the other side of the world, there are students actively fighting for the right to an education. One of the most well known education activists is Malala Yousafzai. While she is often known as “the girl who was shot by the Taliban”, Malala says she would prefer to be known as “the girl who fought for education” and her book, I Am Malala, demonstrates how hard some people have to fight for something we take way too much for granted – the right to an education.
Malala’s story traces her life from her early childhood, through the political unrest and violence that accompanied the arrival of the Taliban in Pakistan, to the shooting that captured international headlines. Education was a high priority in Malala’s life, but one of the things that came strongly through the book for me, was the importance of family support and especially her relationship with her father. As Malala describes it, they were “comrades in arms.” Not only was the value of education passed from father to daughter, but it was a father’s determination to fight and protect her right to an education. As an active education advocate himself, he encouraged Malala to speak out and it was through some of his own connections that she gained opportunities to reach around the world. Malala clearly inherited his courage and passion for education, but she also displayed a determination and confidence beyond her years that enabled her to attend events and address crowds from quite a young age. At the age of thirteen she was nominated by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu for an international peace prize.
Malala’s story also demonstrates what happens when governments abdicate their responsibilities and turn a blind eye to injustice. Malala’s father had long recognised that much of Pakistan’s problems were due to a lack of education. When the Taliban declared that girls could no longer go to school, Malala’s friends reminded her about the inaction of authorities when the Taliban had started blowing up their schools. Children around the world are denied access to education and world leaders turn a blind eye. The education of the poor and marginalised does not rate highly in their national interests. Who then holds governments to account?
The United Nations have set a goal that by 2030 inclusive and equitable education and lifelong learning opportunities should be available for all. Considering the statistics on illiteracy and school attendance, it is a lofty goal, but one that is achievable if we are all of one mind. In a speech given at the United Nations Malala gave this appeal for action:
“Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world”
Too often education is politicised. Governments interfere: questioning curriculum content, rejecting research grants, raising university fees, all in an attempt to meet their own political agenda. However Malala believes that
“Education is education. We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow. Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human.”
The statistics for illiteracy and limited access to education in other parts of the world are quite horrendous and we might feel quite powerless to bring about change. While we may enjoy a reasonable level of access to education in our own country, it’s not something we can ever take for granted. Speaking out and throwing our support behind our teacher unions, academics and educational institutions, particularly when they are under attack from our governments, helps to keep the right of an inclusive and appropriate education front and centre on the national and international stage. I think it is always wise to keep that slogan immortalised on bumper stickers in mind…
If you can read this, thank a teacher