Education symbolises the dreams, hopes, desires and aspirations of children, their parents, their extended families and their communities. Education is the route out of poverty towards healthier, more productive and stronger communities.

The challenge brought by the United Nations embodied by the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) have set an ambitious goal for the international community: by 2030 all young people should be completing a good quality schooling. For that, it is fundamental more and better financing as part of a solid strategy to achieve it.

Some achievements were already made. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of out-of-school children of primary school age fell by 42%. Nevertheless, the evolution that has been reached, 58 million children of primary school age are out of school worldwide and 31 million of those 58 million primary school-age children out of school are girls.

If these trends keep the pace, around 43% of these children (15 million girls and 10 million boys) will probably never go to school. In addition, most of the 30 million out-of-school children in sub-Saharan Africa will never go to school.

We do understand that this progress has not been equitable, because the most disadvantaged children are still left behind. And we must pay closer attention to the fact that the progress on the rate and number of out-of-school children has stalled since 2007.

Exclusion, social detachment and low peer engagement are just a few symptoms of how inequality can weaken a community. In most countries, this is a huge challenge, because high and rising inequality is, in fact, one of the most pressing economic and societal drawbacks.

Inequality can reflect itself in a diversity of dimensions and Education plays a vital role when it comes to how to overcome it and close the gap. Furthermore, when we wonder about the

type of inequality gap, we are reflecting upon, the true is Education can take on kaleidoscope of disparities. For instance, from social disparities (between rich and poor) to gender gap (between boys and girls, men and women) and to spatial gaps (between urban and rural).

The same opportunities for boys and girls

Reducing the gender gap

Gender equality goes beyond economic empowerment; it is about fairness and equity and it embraces many political, social and cultural dimensions.

Gender equality is at the heart of human rights and United Nations (UN) research has shown educated women improve the health and wellbeing of their families and communities. If the goal is reducing poverty and promoting development, it is fundamental to stake on women’s empowerment.

Several countries worldwide have made relevant progress towards gender equality in education in recent decades. Nowadays girls outperform boys in some areas of education. Nevertheless, the glass is still only half full. Women continue to earn less than men and are less likely to make it to the top of the career ladder.

Moreover, in developing countries, where families with fewer opportunities may not be able to afford to send all their children to school, boys may come first.

When primary schooling is made free, girls’ attendance indeed rises. But the cost of education is not just a question of school fees; there are also uniforms and school meals!

A thought to keep in mind is girls who have had schooling become mothers who, in turn, place high value on education for their own daughters.

Since 2000, gender parity in Education has been comprehended as a fundamental indicator of gender equality. Governments and policy makers have dedicated increasing attention on the principle of gender parity, joining efforts to integrate it into their own strategies.

Nevertheless, the reality on the ground is so much more complex, if we give a closer look on school enrolment and school completion.

Perceptions, cultural traditions and beliefs often shape what the government is can do in terms of education and what families and communities are likely to demand.

Despite the progress made in terms of gender parity in primary enrolment in a global perspective, 53% of out-of-school children of primary school age are girls.

If we think about girls’ education, many barriers keep firmly rooted, among which are broad institutional constraints, such as inadequate legislation and policies on sexual violence, female genital mutilation or child marriage, to the deliberate targeting of girls’ education that can end up with their physical harm, as well as their removal from school.

Still in the barriers’ spectrum, the inexistence of a nearby school is a real problem for any child (boy or girl), which can undermine punctuality, attendance and the actual learning.

Girls face certain risks linked to having to walk long distances to go to school, including the danger of being assaulted.

Not having a school nearby is, indeed, a pertinent theme when we wonder about the inequality of opportunities between rural areas and urban areas. Typically, in the cities, children are closer to school. By contrast, in the rural regions, children have to walk long distances to go to school. This translates into higher absence and dropout rates for boys and if we wonder about girls, the rates are higher.

Opening the ladder of educational opportunity needs

Mitigating the social gap

Children enter the school system from distinct backgrounds and experiences and leave it with very different outcomes. Social inequality and an uneven accessibility to education are interconnected and it is challenging to distinguish between cause and effect.

So far, we can agree Education undermines the repercussions of poverty, which, in a broad outline, means inequality mitigate.

In addition, the more equitable the access to education, the greater the positive impact on society as a whole!

The equity gap connects the opportunities children are provided with the outcomes they achieve. On opportunities, children from lower-class homes start off at a disadvantage, with less access to prenatal and early health care, quality day care as infants, quality early childhood programs, and other supports that most children from middle-class homes take for granted. Moreover, the school system often compounds these inequities.

Exploring ‘social inequality’ means trying to comprehend contrasts in family (or individual or group) circumstances, and how these shape lives. This kind of differences can impact to a range of factors – ethnicity, religion, income, health, access to services and facilities – and these factors can interact in complex ways, benefiting some groups and disadvantaging others.

With income inequality reaching its highest level in 30 years, the socio-economic disparities between families have widened. Today in OECD countries, the richest 10% of the population earns about 10 times the income of the poorest 10%, while in the 1980s this ratio stood at 7 to 1.

The growing gap between rich and poor can lead to greater mismatches in education opportunities because, as income inequality goes up, disadvantaged families find it harder to ensure quality education for their children.

It would not have been surprising to see a change for the worse in equity in education, particularly in OECD countries, over the past decade. Between PISA 2006 and PISA 2015, over the last ten years, the socio-economic gradient weakened by 1 percentage point on average across OECD countries.

Nevertheless, what lies behind this improvement in equity? Education policy. Broader social policies to reduce differences in early life experiences between advantaged and disadvantaged children can also promote both equity and high performance when these children enter formal education.

Education in emergency scenarios

Conflicts, disasters caused by pandemics and natural hazards do keep millions of enfants out of school and the numbers are growing. In crisis-affected countries, children in school age are more than twice as likely to be out of school as their peers in other countries. According to UNICEF, over than 450 million children live in a country affected by conflict, which basically represents almost a quarter of the world’s school age children. From that number, 75 million children aged between 3 and 18 years old are in need of educational assistance. Therefore, education systems must do whatever it takes to keep children in school and learning —even at the height of conflict. The response must also be flexible enough to respond to fast-changing situations without losing sight of the demand for long-term engagement during a conflict, but also once the conflict has ended.

Education is a human right and should be assured and protected for all people, at all times. Nevertheless, in emergency scenarios it is very challenging to guarantee safety and protection. This may be related with the loss of power and the lawlessness that ensues, the destruction of infrastructures or because of the redirection of resources.

In this context, it is fundamental that international law and the international community act to mitigate the harmful effects of emergency situations.

Emergencies, whatever their origin, result in a major disruption of education systems. For instance, schools and colleges are often damaged during armed conflict, or used for temporary accommodation of people rendered homeless or displaced by war or disasters such as earthquakes, floods or hurricanes; and students, teachers and their families may need to seek for safety in other countries as refugees.

Education is critical factor for the economic and social recovery of households, economies and countries damaged by conflict, but there are clear constraints to the reform of education systems after a violent conflict. Nevertheless, countries may lack the financial capacity to rebuild schools while trying to meet many other pressing needs, from housing to rebuilding hospitals and assure clean water.

Strategies designed to support emergency education depend on the type of emergency. For instance, if a big number of refugees arrive from a neighbouring country and are accommodated in camps in a remote location, then new schools should be established as a matter of urgency. Often the refugees will themselves start basic lessons for young children, with volunteer teachers. However, this does not answer the demand, and prompt assistance is required, as soon as logistics allows it. Where security permits, international NGOs will normally support the immediate establishment of refugee schools, in liaison with the host government and UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and supported by donor governments.

Bringing Education and Workforce spheres closer

Towards jobs we do not know yet

Targeting as a purpose bridging the Education-Workforce gap and mitigating future inequalities, assisting functions should be in place to reshape and develop the curriculum design process and teacher development at all levels of education.

These mechanisms should be implemented in order to stand for the work of teachers and provide children and teenagers with opportunities for deep learning and skills development

as part of students’ basic school life cycles.

Regarding the Education-Workforce gap, there are two factors to be considered. First, there is the paucity of malleability of school systems to adapt to rapidly transforming economies and grant learners with different sets of competences. Second, the gap results from unprecedented labor market transformations incurred by novel trends, such as automation and technological advancements.

For example, an average of 28% of students in OECD countries are only able to solve straightforward collaborative problems. This reality may hinder their ability to elaborate on the kaleidoscope problems of contemporary world and design solutions for this type of challenges at work and in their communities.

In addition, since 2009, the proportion of learners who reach the basic level of proficiency in reading that are key to understand the surrounding world, to communicate effectively and develop other skills has, in fact, stagnated in OECD’s member countries.

Moreover, according to OECD, socioeconomic status across countries can be predictor of achievement; suggesting school systems have not fully created the adequate environments for competences development and is missing how to match the needs of many populations to build a happier future.

In accordance with The Future of Work and Education for the Digital Age (2018), “technological changes promote labor market disruptions that widens the very Education-Workforce Divide, creating further challenges for democracies as a result of higher inequality rates.”

Countries should guarantee children and youth, especially the most vulnerable, the opportunity to develop different sets of skills for citizenship and work along their education journey. And in order to achieve this, it is fundamental school systems become adaptable to societal and market symptoms.

For that, curriculum reform and teacher professional development become central to close the Education-Workforce gap. So, it must be designed to avoid content overload while guaranteeing quality content and equitable implementation, as well as meeting society’s social and economic needs.

In a nutshell, education plays a pivotal role when the topic of discussion is inequality, whatever the shape or type it unravels. If governments find the way of investing in education, they engage an amazing opportunity of investing in (virtually) every single sector of community life (from public health to social transformation to economic development). Finally, it should be highlighted how enormous is this challenge, so non-governmental organizations, private sector, education directors, teachers, parents… we are all accountable, if the purpose is to mitigate inequality!

Sources:
UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2015), Fixing the Broken Promise of Education for All, Findings from the
Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children
SINCLAIR, Margaret (2015), Education in Emergencies
CARI (Consejo Argentino para las Relaciones Internacionales) (2018), Bridges to the Future of Education: Policy
Recommendations for the Digital Age, Buenos Aires, ISBN 978-950-46-5681-4
OECD (2017), Social inequalities in education are not set in stone: https://oecdedutoday.com/social-inequalities-in-education-are-not-set-in-stone/