Education is the most powerful investment in our future

A child sitting among a group of students in a classroom raises his hand.
© UNICEF/UNI154766/Ose Pupils attends a class at Kursa Primary School in Afar Region of Ethiopia

More than two decades of experience in development and emergency response have shown me how education can make a lasting difference in children’s lives. But education’s not just good for children, it’s good for nations. Investing in education isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s smart economics.

That’s the argument I presented to global leaders this morning at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.

Education can put people on a path towards good health, empowerment and employment. It can help to build more peaceful societies. And the benefits of girls’ education extends to their own children who are often healthier and more educated because their mothers went to school.

Evidence shows that, on average, each additional year of education boosts a person’s income by 10 per cent and increases a country’s GDP by 18 per cent. Some researchers estimate that if every child learned to read, around 170 million fewer people would live in poverty.

Abu (12) is very conscientious about his studies. Abu is in class five at a school in Sierra Leone.
© UNICEF/AFGA2013-00017/Froutan Abu (12) is very conscientious about his studies. He is in class five at a school in Sierra Leone. ©UNICEF/PFPG2014P-0707/Lynch

Yet, there’s an education crisis. Right now, in 2015, more than 120 million children are out of school. And worse, we face a learning crisis. An estimated 130 million children cannot read or count despite reaching Grade 4.

On top of that, the children who would most benefit from an education are those most denied it through no fault of their own. Perhaps their families are poor. Perhaps they live with disabilities and cannot access school. Perhaps they live in remote areas or belong to nomadic communities.

More than half of the children who don’t go to school live in conflict-affected countries. This is especially sad. Education can offer them safety and the opportunity to learn skills that will help them to heal wounds and rebuild their societies.

And the challenge is growing. By 2030, over 600 million more children will need to be enrolled in school to achieve basic education for all.

Children attend pre-primary classes in Rangamati, Bangladesh.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Iman Morooka Children attend pre-primary classes in Rangamati, Bangladesh. ©UNICEF/BANA2014-00606/Mawa

So, what do we have to do to get more children in school and learning?

These issues, and more, are addressed in a new UNICEF report: The Investment Case for Education and Equity, which I launched today.

First, we must invest more in education. We need $26 billion more to get children in school and learning.

Second, we must invest more effectively: in learning; expanding preschool; abolishing school fees; improving learning assessment; and being more accountable to communities for education results.

And third, we must invest more equitably. So that the children who are most in need have access to quality learning.

Consider this: on average, in low-income countries, about half of all public education resources are allocated to the 10% of students that are most educated. Resources to the wealthiest quintile of children are up to 18 times larger than those to the poorest quintile.

That is wrong. We cannot, we must not, ignore this injustice. This knowledge must be an impetus for changing the way we finance global education.

The Investment Case for Education and Equity calls for urgent action. The report suggests that we:

  • allocate more resources to education in the early grades;
  • target resources to the poorest areas and most marginalized children;
  • establish policies and methods that improve spending efficiency; and
  • strengthen learning assessment systems and implement accountability measures that involve parents and communities.

There is no time to lose. Educated children are at the heart of healthy, productive and prosperous societies. If that is the future we want tomorrow, we must invest today.

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