The poorest girls in many Commonwealth countries spend no more than five years in school, with the global target of 12 years of quality universal education remaining “a distant reality” for many, according to a new report charting global inequality in girls’ education.

It is vital that current political uncertainties do not jeopardise the prioritisation of investment in girls’ education

Pauline Rose

The study, commissioned by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and produced by the REAL Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, reveals that the most disadvantaged girls rarely reach high levels of education, beyond primary, that benefit most from national and aid funding. In Nigeria and Pakistan, girls from poor rural households average just one year at school, while rich urban boys enjoy 11 or 12 years of study.

National governments and donor countries must show greater political commitment if global goals on gender equality in education are to be reached, according to the report, 12 Years of Quality Education for All Girls: A Commonwealth Perspective. The report will be launched at the Education World Forum, the world’s largest gathering of education and skills ministers, in London on Monday 21 January 2019.

Barriers to access

The study highlights an array of barriers that prevent girls accessing education, including gender-based violence within and on the way to school, and absenteeism during menstruation because of a lack of availability of sanitary protection. For marginalised girls, cost is also a key barrier in sending girls to school, with poverty leading some girls to have sex with men who provide them with the essentials of secondary schooling that their family cannot afford. Schools must be made “safe spaces” for girls, particularly in areas affected by conflict, say the authors, while cash support for the poorest families may help ease financial pressures and free up daughters to go to school.

Professor Pauline Rose, Director of the REAL Centre and author of the report, said: “Evidence shows us what works to address barriers that marginalised girls face in their access and learning. Much more needs to be done to implement these interventions at far greater scale. It is vital that current political uncertainties do not jeopardise the prioritisation of investment in girls’ education to enable this to happen.” 
The report was commissioned by the Platform for Girls’ Education, co-chaired by the UK Foreign Secretary and Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Education. The platform, a group of 12 influential figures across the Commonwealth, was created after the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in April 2018 affirmed the importance of 12 years of quality education for all, particularly marginalised girls. Achieving that target by 2030 is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals signed up to in 2015 by leaders across the globe. 

Equality a “distant reality”

The study finds that, over the past 20 years, considerable progress has been made in increasing access to primary schooling in the 53 countries of the Commonwealth. There are now equal proportions of boys and girls primary enrolled in 31 out of 44 Commonwealth countries with data. But despite this progress, “12 years of schooling remains a distant reality for many of the most disadvantaged girls residing in Commonwealth countries,” the report says. Gender parity in enrolment has sometimes been achieved even though primary schooling is still not universal: in 2017, 137 million primary-and-secondary school aged children were out of school in these countries, approximately half of them girls.

In 15 out of 21 Commonwealth countries with available data, poor rural girls spend no more than five years in school, and so have little chance of making the transition to secondary school. In six countries, they spend only one or two years in education. Children and adolescents affected by conflict are most likely to be out of school, and refugee girls are particularly at risk: they are half as likely as their male counterparts to be in secondary school.

Poor learning in school

Even those children in school are frequently not learning the basics, researchers found. The recently launched Human Capital Index shows that girls’ education fares far worse when years in school is adjusted for whether or not children are learning. In 14 out of the 26 countries with data, girls who are in school are learning only for the equivalent of six years or less. The picture is likely to be even starker for girls in rural areas and those facing other forms of disadvantage.

Disadvantage starts early, the study says, with many girls denied early years investment that is proven to boost educational achievement later. In eight of 14 Commonwealth countries with data, no more than 40 percent of poor rural girls have access to pre-primary education, and in three out of these eight countries, fewer than 10 percent are enrolled.

Governments should do more to target funding on lower levels of education and marginalised groups, the report argues. In 33 out of 45 Commonwealth countries with data, governments are spending far more on post-primary levels of education than on primary schooling, even though the probability of the most disadvantaged girls reaching these levels of education is extremely low. Of the 35 Commonwealth countries with data on pre-primary spending, 25 governments are spending less than five percent of their education budgets on pre-primary education.

Early years not prioritised

The same failure to prioritise the early years is seen in education aid spending. Funding for primary education fell from around two thirds in 2002 to under a half (47%) by 2016, and a mere 0.4 percent of education aid to Commonwealth countries was spent on pre-primary education. By contrast, 10 percent is spent on scholarships to allow students from aid-recipient Commonwealth countries to study in donor countries, even though only the most privileged benefit from such schemes.

In addition, only around five percent of total education aid appears to be spent with the main objective of achieving gender equality. The UK alone bucks the trend, with all but 2% of education aid targeting gender equality directly or significantly affecting it.

To tackle discrimination and work towards gender equality in education, governments of Commonwealth countries must show visible high-level political commitment backed by resources, the study concludes. Funding towards early childhood education and early learning should be prioritised.

Support for girls at puberty

There must also be steps to address the particular challenges marginalised girls face at puberty, such as provision of sanitary pads in schools, and moves to keep girls safe and secure in school, including providing female staff, secure buildings and door-to-door transport between school and home. More broadly, gender-sensitive teaching practices and materials are needed to ensure discriminatory stereotypes are not enforced, says the study.

The report sets out three priorities for further action, including “high-level, visible political leadership” towards gender equality in education, backed up by sufficient resources to reach the most marginalised girls. Investment in early years education is also vital, together with making girls’ education a priority in wider national development planning.

For more information, contact: Professor Pauline Rose or Faculty of Education Communications Manager Lucy Ward on

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