“We can continue business as usual…or we can step up now and make the investment in education that will pay dividends of prosperity and peace for the entire world. The morally right choice and the smart choice are one and the same. We need to deliver change and create education for all.”

These are the words spoken by Julia Gillard at the London School of Economics on Monday, as she made her case for why leaders need to tackle the global learning crisis – and fast.

The name Julia Gillard may ring a bell; you may know that she was the first female prime minister of Australia (2010 to 2013), or have her seen her ‘misogyny speech’, in which she famously skewered the then leader of the opposition in Parliament, or her appearance in one of Hillary Clinton’s campaign videos during the US presidential race. But what you probably don’t know about Julia Gillard is that she is one of the world’s top education advocates and the Board Chair of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), the only multilateral fund dedicated exclusively to education in the world’s poorest countries.

Julia Gillard speaking at LSE event, Education For All: Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century
Caption: Julia Gillard speaking at an LSE event, Education For All: Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century. Photo: LSE

Speaking to an audience of students, education professionals and civil society organisations, Gillard emphasised the role of education in driving global development across the board, from economic growth, to gender equality and better health outcomes. If every child in every low-income country was able to complete secondary school by 2030, income per capita would increase by 75%. It’s hard to even imagine the impact that this would have on the lives of children and young people, families, communities and countries.

But we are nowhere near meeting SDG4 for an inclusive and quality education for all. 263 million children are still out of school, and those caught in crises, those with disabilities and girls are left furthest behind. Aid to education has been steadily declining over the last fifteen years but the problem is not going away – in fact it will only get worse over the next few decades. With technology rapidly changing, jobs in the future will require even more skills than today, and without an education, over half of the world’s youth generation won’t be equipped with the skills that they need to prosper.

Granted, education is not as easy to measure as other development interventions, like vaccines, which have a clear, quantifiable impact. But does this really excuse the staggering funding gap of US$39 billion per year? It’s time for world leaders to wake up and see education not as an expense, but as a vital investment in the next generation. It’s time to fund education properly.

That’s where GPE steps in. Since its inception in 2002, GPE has worked with more than 60 developing country partners to strengthen basic national education systems. Its funding model means that grants are partially results-based (countries should promote equity, efficiency and learning) and require implementing governments to increase their own expenditure on education – quite the opposite of simply throwing money at the problem. GPE is particularly committed to getting the most marginalised children into school and is developing guidelines on inclusive education for governments. Right now, it has several programs to improve access to school for children with disabilities. 

Caption: Pauline Rose, Professor of International Education at the University of Cambridge; Saul Estrin, Professor of Management at LSE and Julia Gillard taking questions from the audience. Photo: LSE

GPE urgently needs US$3.1 billion overall for its replenishment for 2018 to 2020. Since 2005, the UK has been a world leader in funding global education and a significant contributor to GPE. But at present, DFID dedicates just 8.42% of its overall budget to education. It is critical that the UK increases its commitment to education, particularly through GPE and continues to encourage other donors to invest.

Gillard ended her speech with a call to action, urging the audience to join civil society groups in campaigning for the success of GPE’s replenishment. RESULTS campaigners have already been leading the way, writing to their MPs about the importance of global education in the April campaign action Education counts. Ahead of the GPE replenishment next year, there will be many more opportunities for campaigners to make the case to decision-makers for increased funding for education through GPE. This replenishment presents a unique opportunity to address the learning gap and make real progress towards achieving not just SDG4, but all of the SDGs. As Julia Gillard put it: ‘now it’s education’s time’.

Click here to watch the speeches and questions in full.