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International day of Education 2023

In 2018, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 24 January as the “International Day of Education” (PDF).

For 2023, the theme is “to invest in people, prioritize education.”

Progress on the SDGs

When proclaiming the International Day in 2018, the UN General Assembly called upon all states to work towards the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Four, which calls upon the world to:

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

The SDGs are intended to be met by 2030. Globally, issues of child marriage, poverty, conflict, and gender bias have created barriers for girls to access education.

Despite global progress, areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa continued to see lower rates of completion: 63% of children completed primary school in the region in 2020, 44% lower secondary, and 27% upper secondary. Completion rates of girls were lower than boys in only a few world regions, including in sub-Saharan Africa at upper secondary level (26% of girls, compared to 29% of boys) and Central and Southern Asia (52% of girls, 55% of boys) Countries with a gender disparity at primary level included Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Chad.

The SDG update also noted the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. It estimated schools were closed, on average, for 41 weeks from March 2020 to February 2022 due to public health measures. Separate UN data suggests 222 million crisis-risk children were struggling to attend school or not achieving minimum proficiency in maths or reading in June 2022, up from 75 million in 2016.

Situation in Afghanistan

UNESCO has dedicated this year’s International Day to girls and women in Afghanistan, who have increasingly lost access to education since the Taliban captured Kabul and took control of the country in August 2021.

Women were allowed to return to university in February 2022, though with separate classes to men and a shortage of female lecturers. However, a ban on female students was introduced in December 2022.

While boys’ secondary schools (covering ages 13 to 18) were reopened in August 2021, most of those for girls remained closed. The Taliban said this was temporary, blaming a shortage of female teachers and need to reform the curriculum, but in March 2022 a pledged reopening was cancelled. Analysis by Save the Children, Unicef and others found that 77% of girls (850,000) of secondary school age were not attending classes in April 2022.

At primary school level (6-12), girls’ attendance continued. In a survey of attendance between June and August 2022, the World Bank estimated that school enrolment among girls was 48%, around the same level as 2016. In December, however, there were reports that girls may also be banned from primary school and women no longer able to work in education.

The Taliban’s decision to exclude women and girls from education has drawn international condemnation, including from the United Nations, and the G7, who in December accused the Taliban of pursuing “policies designed to erase women from public life,” as well as by Muslim-majority countries in the region including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

In March 2022, the World Bank froze US$600 million in response to the Taliban’s decision to stop girls attending secondary school. In December 2022, the UK Government said it would not support any restoration of waivers to the travel bans on UN-sanctioned Taliban until women and girls are allowed to attend secondary school and university.   

Curtailing girls’ attendance at school is also likely to damage the country economically, according to Unicef estimates.

UK Aid

UK aid policy on education

In May 2022, the UK Government launched a new ten-year aid strategy. It has four broad priorities: strengthening reliable investment, providing humanitarian assistance, addressing climate change, biodiversity and global health, and empowering women and girls.

While education is not a distinct priority, the aim to empower women and girls includes working towards ensuring that every girl receives 12 years of quality education. This comprises:

  • Helping to meet the G7’s global commitment to get 40 million girls into school and 20 million more girls reading by age 10 by 2026, in low- and lower-middle income countries. The G7 agreed to these aims during the UK’s Presidency in 2021.
  • Strengthening foundational skills and skills for the future, to help girls transition into the work force.
  • Building effective education systems and breaking down the barriers to girls remaining in school (eg. poverty, disability, unintended pregnancies, early marriage, and conflict).

A separate policy document, Every girl goes to school, was published by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in May 2021, to cover the five years to 2026. This sets out three pillars for UK work on education: Advancing a global coalition to advance girls learning, directing UK aid efforts to increase girls’ participation and retention in school, and championing and disseminating related research.

A separate women and girls aid strategy is also due to be published in 2023.

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