This article was written by Anna Darling, Education Policy and Advocacy Adviser, Plan International UK. It was originally published on the BOND website on 16 April 2021.

Covid-19 has caused an education emergency at a scale not experienced in living memory. Over 1.5 billion learners – 90% worldwide – have seen their education interrupted.

Estimates from UNICEF suggest that schools have been shut for a full year for more than 168 million children globally. Girls, children with disabilities, refugee children, and children living in humanitarian settings are experiencing the most catastrophic impacts. 

The pandemic threatens to cause irreversible harm to children’s education – a whole generation of children are at risk of losing out. It is critical that G7 leaders take bold action to help prevent this from happening. As education around the world begins to recover from this crisis, we must learn from the past year and ensure that schools are inclusive, accessible and resilient to future crises. 

Girls’ education has been hit hard by the pandemic. At least 20 million girls are at risk of never returning to school. The pandemic has exacerbated existing barriers to education for girls, such as an increase in gender-based violence, greater risk of unplanned or unintended pregnancy, having to take on the gendered burden of care work, and boys being prioritised when it comes to access to laptops, computers or smartphones. The tragic fact is, the longer girls are out of school, the less likely they’ll ever return. A whole generation’s worth of progress in girls’ education is on the brink of being wiped out.

But it would be simplistic to blame poor school attendance or the poor quality of education on Covid. The reality is there has been a global funding shortfall for education over the past decade which has resulted in slow progress towards reducing the number of children out-of-school and improving education. Nearly 10 years later, aid to education has become stagnant, despite the increasing need. Aid to education has also been poorly targeted, failing to reach the most in need countries.

With the risk of Covid-19 increasing the current $148 billion financing gap to education by a third, the chance of achieving any of the SDG global education goals are going to be slim. This means the world will have failed to provide all children with quality and inclusive education by 2030.

Increasing funding for education and closing this financing gap will be central to determining how education systems recover from COVID-19. 

It isn’t all doom and gloom. Covid-19 presents an opportunity to build back better, and to build back equal, but this will only happen if the leaders at the G7 are willing to ask and accept answers to the right questions. 

We now have an opportunity to rebuild education in a way that reaches every child – without gender barriers or interruptions. As girls and boys return to school, leaders have the opportunity to shape the environment to which they return. Are schools fit for purpose? Are they safe? Are they enabling and supporting the inclusion of girls and children with disabilities? Are schools fully funded and resourced? Are they investing in special efforts to bring back to school the most marginalised children? Are they providing comprehensive sexuality education? Are systems built to withstand current, or potential, conflict and climate shocks that are already being felt in so many communities? These are the questions civil society will be putting to leaders during this year’s G7 Summit. 

Underpinning any rebuild and recovery of education needs to be an inclusive, gender transformative approach. This approach is one of the most powerful and important tools for achieving gender equality. It plays a critical role in equipping girls and boys with the knowledge and skills needed to develop their agency and ability to lead, challenge harmful cultural and social norms, such as child marriage, and build and participate in movements that drive progress for gender equality.

Movements such as “Fridays for Future” demonstrate the role education can play in bringing about huge systemic change. We need to provide girls and young women around the world with the skills they need to bring about the change which is needed for them to be able to fulfil their ambitions. This means adopting an inclusive and gender transformative agenda, as this approach is key to ensuring that education promotes social justice, gender justice and climate action. Crucially, we must let girls lead. 

With the G7, GPE Summit and COP26 all on the horizon, this year provides an opportunity to ask the right questions to make education inclusive, accessible and resilient. But education needs investment, both in terms of time and resources. With so much currently at stake for people and the planet, the transformative power of education must be harnessed now more than ever to build a more tolerant, peaceful, sustainable and just world.