The year 2000 was momentous. My daughter Isobel was born and with 2 billion children in the world, it was a year in which we were close to ‘peak child.’ Between 2000 and 2017, millions of children moved out of extreme poverty, but sadly, too many children still live in poverty, which often means they don’t go to school. There may be no school within walking distance, or the parents may not be able to afford the fees, or the children may be forced to work to supplement the family’s income instead of going to school.
On Universal Children’s Day, we still live in a world where 59 million children don’t go to school and 250 million cannot read or write. These numbers continue to grow as populations rise throughout the developing world - in the next 50 years, the African population is projected to grow from 1 billion to 4 billion and the Asian population from 4 billion to 5 billion. This is disappointing, as we know that education is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty and improve health, gender equality, peace and stability.
So, if we want to maintain the progress we have made in reducing global poverty, we must find ways of enabling children to go to good schools and live lives of opportunity, have the chance to reach their potential. Unless we focus on young people, unless we educate them and connect them to meaningful employment opportunities, we are going to give up some of those gains made in reducing global poverty during the last 20 years.
Opportunity International has been working for several years through its partners in Africa to provide small loans to entrepreneurs so they can build and operate schools, delivering high-quality education to thousands of African children. These ‘affordable private schools’ operate as businesses, they charge fees, the owners repay their loans. And because loans are repaid, the money is re-lent to other entrepreneurs to build and equip more schools. They’re a sustainable way of providing families with affordable access to good education. Opportunity International Australia is now providing similar loans to entrepreneurs in India and other parts of Asia so they too can provide the excellent education necessary to give young people the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.
School proprietors use the small loans from Opportunity to build classrooms; pay qualified teachers; improve the curriculum; purchase books, blackboards, whiteboards and computers, and build toilets so girls can continue their education once they reach puberty. This is a sustainable way of growing access to quality education at the scale required globally to solve the education crisis. Opportunity’s education Finance (EduFinance) initiative is driven by one simple vision: get kids into school now. We must educate our children, we cannot wait for generational change: the need is today.
This means that children need a school they can get to – close enough to home that they don’t spend their whole day travelling and a safe enough journey that parents are willing to let their children make it. For rural families, school infrastructure in and of itself presents a barrier to education. If there is a school within reach, it needs to be affordable. This means parents can afford school fees and the associated costs of uniforms, books and supplies, and that families are willing to prioritise education over other income-generating activities for their children.
Once a child is in a classroom, they must then be able to learn. For so many students in the developing world, simply attending school doesn’t guarantee an education. Teachers are regularly untrained. And in crowded classrooms without sufficient materials and resources, even trained teachers struggle to teach effectively. The result is a generation of children – even those who have attended years of school – who are illiterate. This is a critical issue in Africa where over 30 per cent of those students who have completed four years of education cannot read at the minimum expected standard.
Developing innovative strategies that make schools not only good and available, but also financially sustainable, will open the doors of education to millions of children – and keep those doors open into the future. To get the 264 million kids currently out of school, into the classroom, to address the ongoing gender disparity in education and to improve the quality of the education students receive, schools need to develop sustainable solutions to serve the needs of children.
The small loans Opportunity provides to entrepreneurial school proprietors has proven to be a successful model for providing affordable education on the large scale required to re-invent kids’ futures. Enable them to live lives free from poverty, with hope, dignity and purpose.