Girls’ education is about more than just schools

Elaine Green

Our Head of Influencing, Campaigns and Public Affairs, Elaine Green looks at FCDO's Action Plan on Girls’ Education and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on disabled girl's education.

Classroom in Zambia

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) ’s Action Plan on Girls’ Education is very welcome indeed. And it is doubly welcome in light of the massive disruption to schooling caused by COVID-19.

Crucially, the Plan acknowledges this disruption has hit girls hardest. This puts June’s G7 summit at a crucial juncture, where years of progress on improving access to education is at risk of rolling back. 

What is the Action Plan on Girls’ Education?

The Plan’s aims are ambitious. The group wants to see 40 million more girls in lower-to-lower-middle-income countries in school by 2026 and 20 million more girls reading by age 10.

It is also pragmatic, setting out a three-stage strategy:

  • Ready [Stage one]
  • Steady [Stage two]
  • Go [Stage three]

Stage one sees a campaign to encourage girls back to school. Stage two sets out plans to deliver the long term goals above, while stage three sets out plans for mobilising funding for the Plan. 

But for these high-level aims to be fulfilled, we need to know what’s happening on the ground first. This is especially true if we’re going to improve access for girls with disabilities. This is why our Inclusive Education Model puts such great emphasis on working with the whole community, not just the school, to increase participation in a given area.

Impact of local community

Local attitudes matter, particularly attitudes to girls with disabilities. How a community views disability can mean the difference between a girl with a disability getting an education or being isolated from an early age and never attending school. In this case, intervention in the local community is just as crucial as in schools, if not more so.

In Kenya, for example, an essential starting point has been mentoring fathers and changing their attitudes to girls with disabilities. Changing the attitudes of local men removed one of the most significant barriers standing between girls with disabilities and school. This is one example among many where we have found that our approach to girls’ education works best when it is holistic. We need to focus on what happens outside the classroom walls as much as inside them.

Education doesn't have to include a school

Securing an education for a young person with disabilities might not involve a school at all. Take Shebbie, from Kenya. Shebbie, who is 19, had never been to school when she came into contact with our Education For Life programme in Kenya. There were no schools that were local or affordable enough to educate her.

Shebbie had been excluded because of her disabilities. She has autism and cerebral palsy. But with support from mentors and community health workers, Shebbie has bloomed. She has gained independence and is learning literacy and numeracy. 

As we prepare to discuss the future at G7, we need to remember Shebbie. We need to remember all the girls with disabilities who are some of the most marginalised in the world. We need an approach to match.

Why we need specific targets for disabled girls' access to education

This is also why disability needs to be at the heart of conversations about the Action Plan on Girls’ Education. In a practical sense, this means breaking down the high-level targets named above to sub-targets for disabled girls.

We need targets for attendance, participation, and literacy. Ensuring a girl with a disability can attend her local school needs its own approach because the task carries its own challenges. These can include accessibility of buildings, travel, and teacher training, to name just three.

Again, you see the power these changes have in pupil’s stories. Efita, a 10-year-old in Tanzania, for example, is flourishing at school after Leonard Cheshire trained his teacher in disability awareness. Previously he was disinterested and quiet; now he has many friends and is learning quickly. 

We also need to change wider local attitudes to disabled people, particularly girls. These attitudes can mean children with disabilities become isolated from an early age and never attend school. This is why we have worked to mentor fathers in Kenya, to drive that shift. With mentoring, fathers can empower girls with disabilities. This isn’t an intervention directly related to schooling. But it is crucial to support inclusive education nonetheless.

So that’s why setting specific targets on disability is so important. It is an area that demands proper focus.

Make disabled girls part of the plan

We are experiencing one of the most disruptive periods in education in history. And, as in many disasters, the disruption has happened unequally. But commitments at G7 signal a strong political will to reopen education in an equal way.

The Action Plan on Girls’ Education should be commended for its ambitious goals. Let’s go even further and make disabled girls a vital part of the Plan to realise those goals for every girl.

Every Girl's Right

Our Every Girl's Right report draws upon the lived experiences of people with disabilities, their family members, and teachers participating in our Inclusive Education projects.

It demonstrates the potential of the model to reach the most marginalised girls, and tackle additional barriers created by the intersection of gender, disability, and poverty.

Read our Every Girl's Right report (PDF - 1.45MB)