Islamabad / Lagos — Never before have so many children been out of school. 1.6 billion children and young people - more than 90% of students worldwide - have been impacted by school closures during the pandemic. Hundreds of millions of those children have gone without any learning at all, deprived of all the benefits that being in school provides.
In our countries, Pakistan and Nigeria, the situation is even worse.
Both countries have the world's highest out-of-school populations, taken together our countries account for almost a third of the 258 million children who are entirely excluded from education, despite only making up 5% of the global population.
Pakistan is set to lose a larger share of students from the school system than any other country, with close to a million children expected to drop out, according to the World Bank.
In Nigeria, the worsening and widespread insecurity across the country, and particularly in the northern region, is leading to further school closures and population displacement.
Girls are disproportionately affected by these crises, through entering child labour, as well as teenage marriage and pregnancies, compounding all our fears about the increased risk of sexual violence and exploitation when girls are out of school.
In school but not learning
What's more, millions of children across the world are in school but not learning.
The World Bank's 'Learning Poverty' indicator - which calculates the number of children aged 10 who cannot read an age-appropriate sentence - found that more than half of children in low- and middle-income countries were in learning poverty prior to COVID, and that the pandemic has pushed this figure up to 63%.
In Pakistan, where 75% of children of late primary age were already in learning poverty prior to COVID, we are deeply concerned for their futures as the pandemic continues its destructive path.
The furthest behind face even graver challenges
The pandemic has also further exposed existing inequalities that prevent children from accessing education and further alienate those in school.
Lessons from past crises have shown us that these inequalities, including social and digital divides, mean those furthest behind and most vulnerable, including those facing marginalisation due to gender, poverty and disability, are at greatest risk of never returning to school.
In Nigeria, insecurity combined with the economic impact of COVID-19 has pushed 7 million Nigerians into poverty, which has a catastrophic impact on education.
Without sufficient household income, and with the additional risk of attacks on schools exacerbated by the internal insecurity, many Nigerian children are no longer able to remain in school and instead roam the streets, often engaging in petty crimes.
We must ensure that as the world recovers from COVID-19 and seeks to address this rapidly growing education crisis, that those most marginalised remain our priority.
Investment is the key to ending the crisis
Many explanations exist as to why we are in this crisis. Ultimately, however, world leaders have made promises but failed to implement them.
In 2015, the world promised to deliver quality education for all the world's children. To help deliver that promise, countries made commitments to spend at least 4-6% of GDP and/or 15-20% of total budgets on education.
Yet, six years later and one in four countries do not meet either of the benchmarks on national financing for education.
The financial implications of COVID have put national budgets under unprecedented pressure. Two-thirds of low- and lower-middle income countries have cut their public education budgets since the onset of the pandemic.
In Nigeria, the federal budget for education is the lowest in a decade at just 6.3% of the national budget, and in Pakistan, the 2021-22 budget allocates just 1.5% of GDP to education, continuing deeply concerning trends in both countries.
Rather than cutting budgets, we should be investing in education: funding re-enrolment to get all children back into school along with remediation programmes to address learning loss.
A once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform education
World leaders will convene the Global Education Summit in London on Wednesday 28th and Thursday 29th July to raise at least US$5 billion from donor governments and leverage billions more in domestic financing commitments.
Donor governments stepping up to fully-fund GPE remains critical, but the Summit could also provide a turning point for progress on national financing of education.
A call to action on domestic financing for education
President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, who is co-hosting the Summit alongside UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has invited Heads of Government in all GPE partner countries to endorse a Call to Action on Education Financing.
The statement commits governments to maintain spending on education above 20% of national expenditure or to progressively increase spending towards this benchmark over the next five years.
It recognises that by improving the volume, equity and efficiency of domestic resources going to education we can deliver on the promise of education we made to the world's children and fast-track progress towards achieving all development goals.
Ministers of Education are being invited to make commitments to improve the equity and efficiency of public financing for education. To make best use of both domestic resources and donor support for education, we encourage all governments to undertake strategic and holistic reforms to ensure that education financing is utilised most effectively and equitably.
President Kenyatta also calls for concerted action on debt relief and greater flexibility from the international banks in supporting countries' liquidity. Without debt relief, our countries will be unable to allocate the necessary funding to public services, including education.
In 2020, the federal government of Nigeria spent the equivalent of 83% of revenue to service debt, money that could and should be spent instead on reducing the number of children out of school and providing them with a quality education.
Parliamentary leadership for education, COVID-19 and beyond
As Regional Representatives for the International Parliamentary Network for Education (IPNEd), we are proud to be leading a global charge to call on world leaders to protect, prioritise and increase financing for education.
The past year has shown even more starkly the realities facing children living in Lagos and Lahore for whom returning to school remains a pipe dream. Financing education provides the route to unlock their future and millions more.
The cost of inaction is catastrophic, the benefits will be immense.
Mehnaz Akber Aziz is a Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan where she was first elected in 2018. She is Chair of the SDGs Committee on Child Rights and she is also the International Parliamentary Network for Education's Regional Representative for Asia. She completed a Masters in Anthropology at the Quaid-i-Azam University and a Masters in Gender and Development Studies at the University of Sussex.
Prof. Julius O. Ihonvbere, is an elected member in Nigeria's National Assembly representing Owan Federal Constituency in the Federal House of Representatives where he is also Chairman, House Committee on Basic Education and Services. He is also the International Parliamentary Network for Education's Regional Representative for Africa. Prior to being elected, he served as Secretary to the Government of Edo State and Chairman of the State's Strategic Planning Team. He was previously Special Advisor to the Nigerian President on Program and Policy Monitoring.