Living and working in the UK, where students all have access to free education, it’s easy to take the national education system for granted and forget that there are millions of students worldwide who are denied an education.

The statistics for children who grow up without a formal education are shocking – according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics an estimated 59 million children do not go to school and around 100 million children don’t complete primary education. Furthermore, some education systems are of such poor quality that an estimated 250 million children leave school without being able to read, write or count.

A recent UN report also revealed that only 49% of the world’s children go on to attend secondary school. The statistics for adults are equally as tragic with an estimated 780 million adults, still lacking basic reading and writing skills.

Education is becoming increasingly essential in the technology-driven world of the 21stCentury. Children growing up without access to education are stripped of t
he opportunities to realise their individual potential and lack the skills to succeed in modern society. Not only are uneducated children sentenced to a life of poverty with limited opportunities but these young people are also considerably more prone to exploitation and slavery.

Fortunately, there are signs of hope on the horizon as the plight of these children received a huge boost from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Summit in New York last week. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by 193 UN member nations after an address by Pope Francis, who called the adoption “an important sign of hope.” Expectations are high that global commitment to these goals will improve the living conditions for millions of people with Bill Gates calling the Sustainable Development Goals the most important thing the UN has done this century.

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals are a set of targets for 2030 which aim to end poverty, promote prosperity and protect the environment. These global goals have been designed to build on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals, which among other achievements contributed to the number of children out-of-school dropping by 42% and the number of out-of-school adolescents being reduced by 31%.

The commitment to improving education is detailed in Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals which aims to ensure that by 2030 all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality education at both primary and secondary level, and calls for the international community to “promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.  The United Nations and development agencies recognize that education is an essential catalyst for development which can contribute to the reduction of poverty, improved equality and it remains an important foundation for peace. As such, education is central to the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals and essential for the realization of other sustainable development goals. Furthermore education is recognized as a fundamental human right inextricably linked to the foundation for human fulfilment and responsible global citizenship.

To raise awareness of this renewed commitment to education for all, there were a number of periphery events that coincided with the UN General Assembly and the signing of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Global Education First Initiative (GEFI) event in New York was attended by a host of social advocates and opinion makers that included Peng Liyuan, First Lady of China and UNESCO Special Envoy for the Advancement of Girls and Women’s Education, Ban Soon-taek, spouse of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Nobel Peace laureates Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai.

The GEFI event begun with a message from Ban Ki-moon highlighting the need to provide for the millions of children who are still out of school. The First Lady of China and UNESCO Special Envoy, Peng Liyuan, whose father had been the principal of an evening school in rural China and taught illiterate women to read and write , also emphasized her personal commitment to ensuring that all girls have access to quality education while Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai reiterated that, “education is a basic human right”.

This message of access to education and educational equality also took center stage at the Global Citizen Festival in Central Parkwith Michelle Obama, Beyonce  and  Malala Yousafza all stressing the importance of education and the need for governments and agencies to fulfill their commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals. Michelle Obama took the opportunity to highlight gender inequality in education, “right now 62 million girls are not in school… they deserve the same chances to get an education as my daughters and your daughters,” and she urged girls in the US, “to make sure that all of you here in the United States are taking advantage of the opportunities you have’. The star studded line up also called on the millions watching the festival to support the 2030 Global Goals and hold their governments accountable to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

It is now hoped that governments, NGOs, opinion makers, local communities and individuals will build on the momentum created by the SDG Summit and work committedly to realizing the goal of ensuring every child has access to education by 2030. As classroom teachers we too can do our bit to support this cause by sharing the Global Goals on social media, encouraging our students to be responsible global citizens and supporting fund raising activities. We can also inspire our students to embrace their education by sharing the insights from a girl who risked her life fighting for an education, Malala Yousafza, “In some parts of the world, students are going to school every day. It’s their normal life. But in other parts of the world, we are starving for education… it’s like a precious gift. It’s like a diamond.”