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Education Equality - The Helen Grant Interview

6 min read

As the Prime Minister’s special envoy on girls’ education, Helen Grant is passionate in her belief that giving girls around the world access to schooling is central to eradicating poverty. But, she tells Jasmine Lee-Zogbessou, the UK’s pledge to get girls into education needs global buy-in

Helen Grant has dedicated decades of her life to championing women and girls. Raised in a matriarchal household by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother on a Carlisle council estate, she’s proud of her strong female influences; it is this upbringing and her career as a children and family lawyer that, she says, inform her political choices today.

“A lot of my time was spent protecting, helping and supporting women and girls. Anything that will empower them, as education can do, is close to my heart,” Grant says.

Having been the Conservative MP for Maidstone and the Weald since 2010, and a former minister under David Cameron, this year she was appointed the Prime Minister’s special envoy on girls’ education. She’s visibly passionate when we discuss the government’s global aims to get 40 million more girls in primary and secondary school by 2025, and 20 million more girls reading by 2026, to help tackle poverty and inequality, as well as a commitment to get 12 years of quality education for every girl worldwide. They are, she concedes, incredibly ambitious aims.

“They need to be ambitious,” Grant says. “Nine out of 10 children in low-income countries cannot read a simple short text by the age of 10, and two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people are women. This is a huge concern to me.”

Grant’s commitment is clear. Yet, following the chancellor’s spending review announcement to temporarily cut foreign aid from the 0.7 per cent UN target to 0.5 per cent, is there a conflict in government over the provision of the necessary funding for such a strong focus on helping developing countries’ most vulnerable citizens?

“The seismic impact of the pandemic has unfortunately meant that some really tough decisions have had to be made,” Grant says.

“Money is important, but making this change, moving the dial and getting 12 years of quality education for every girl is not just about the money that we spend, it’s also about rallying the world behind these very important global targets.

“We will be leaders, but others need to work with us – starting with the G7, and then other donor nations and multinational organisations. Strong leadership [is] how we’re going to get there.”

Not long after our discussion, the government’s foreign aid policy is challenged by several senior Conservative backbenchers, including former prime minister Theresa May, piling the pressure on to reverse the cuts.

Grant is aware that charities and NGOs will bear the brunt of trying to make up ground where the cuts will do the most damage. With an increased demand for services and less funding from the government, it is clear many charities are anxious.

Grant, however, insists the UK still has one of the largest aid budgets in the world, and says she hopes the government will return to 0.7 per cent once fiscal conditions allow.

It’s unclear when this will be, with charities potentially left waiting years for fiscal conditions to improve to get the support they urgently need.

Covid-19 has made the situation considerably worse, and Grant acknowledges this. “The pandemic is probably one of the biggest educational disruptors we’ve ever had, affecting 1.6 billion children at the peak last year. Many will never return to school.

“If we do not work together to do something about it, there is a very real risk that there will be a lost generation of girls.”

The pandemic is probably one of the biggest educational disruptors we’ve ever had

The “lost generation of girls” narrative is one Grant has frequently raised, and it’s a concern echoed by Boris Johnson. Yet some critics suggest this focus on girls isn’t reflected across the Conservative Party.

Last year, secretary of state for international trade, Liz Truss, who is also the minister for women and equalities, used a speech at the Centre for Policy Studies to suggest “switch[ing] focus” from race and gender to poverty and geographical disparities, describing race and gender as “fashionable” issues.

Grant insists, however, that Truss is a “passionate advocate” for education and the empowerment of women and girls, adding there is “considerable buy-in and interest” around girls’ education across the House of Commons.

And there is a good reason why Grant and many of her colleagues are focusing on half the young population.

“Girls are more at risk of gender-based violence, [plus there’s] early pregnancy, forced marriage, early marriage, female genital mutilation, human trafficking – the terrible list goes on,” Grant says.

The challenge is twofold: getting girls back into school following the pandemic’s disruption and getting girls into school who weren’t learning in the first place.

Grant has seen first-hand the effects of Covid-19 on developing countries, particularly Uganda and Nigeria, where her father is from, and where she travelled last month to adapt the UK’s aid programmes, introducing accelerated learning programmes and recorded radio lessons to help girls who have missed school.

Short-term, these steps are valuable. However, getting 40 million more girls learning in four years and 20 million more reading in five years will require much more, and with cuts of almost £4bn, how does one tangibly measure the progress of such large aims, let alone achieve them?

The UK’s G7 presidency is the answer, according to Grant. The government has put girls’ education at the heart of the G7 to give this challenge the power and the profile it requires, as well as the political and financial commitment.

“These are global targets. [They] will require global buy-in and a global solution; we can’t do this on our own,” Grant says.

The UK is also working with Kenya, co-hosting the Global Education Summit in July this year with a target of raising $5bn towards the Global Partnership for Education’s work in developing countries.

Global awareness and raising billions of dollars for education ministries worldwide are a couple of ways to transform the world’s education system. However, Grant acknowledges that the systemic issues that impact girls from an early age cannot be overlooked either.

“It’s not just a matter of coming up with educational programmes, it’s also about tackling the issues that prevent girls from getting into school and staying in school,” she adds.

“No girl should have her hopes and dreams dashed because she’s had to marry too early or she’s become a mother too early due to the lack of sexual reproductive health services.

“Championing all the things we do as gender equality leaders is very important too.”

Grant’s focuses include adopting a co-ordinated and highly vocal approach to global girls’ education as well as actively and carefully listening to what it is girls say they want and need for their education, whether that’s better roads for safer travel to school, sanitary pads to avoid missing school due to menstruation, or separate washing facilities.

There are layers to the methods countries can adopt to improve the quality of education for young girls and it’s clear the UK is taking considerable steps to play its part.

The outcome of these steps is yet to be seen, but six months into her seemingly destined role, Grant is optimistic about the next few years.

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