How can we make schools safer?

Gordon Brown
United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education; World Health Organization Ambassador for Global Health Financing, The Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown
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Over a year ago, the world took weeks to wake up to the fact that more than 200 girls had been abducted from their school in northern Nigeria.

A rallying cry for action was led by campaigners in Nigeria and around the globe. And once everyone was finally made aware of this horrific incident it was at the World Economic Forum in Abuja where we saw a breakthrough in action with the launch of a new approach to safe schools in the wake of the abduction.

The involvement of the World Economic Forum, business leaders and governments together, was crucial in moving this forward.  And it was critical that this had been launched in Nigeria by the Government.

So one task under way but many, many greater ones to overcome. The effort to create a Safe Schools movement from Pakistan and Nigeria, to the Lebanon and DRC, Afghanistan and beyond, where education for girls and boys must be safeguarded and protected, has been remarkable.

According to the latest UN Human Rights report, in 2012 alone there were 3,600 separate attacks against educational institutions, teachers and schools.

Gordon Brown Blog

Source: GCPEA

Can we ever forget the mass abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls? Even this week – a full 15 months after the attack – we are told that some of the girls have been brainwashed into joining forces with their Boko Haram kidnappers.

And will there ever be an attack as appalling as the one at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, exactly six months ago when 132 innocent boys, girls and teachers were massacred by terrorists?

Schools that already have the same legal rights under international law as hospitals should be as safe as the hospitals that have Red Crosses on them and the UN buildings and vehicles that bear the UN blue symbol. Safe havens and safe schools equal safe children.

And the perpetrators of terrorist crimes against girls and boys should be made aware that murdering or abducting schoolchildren is a heinous crime that international authorities will punish.

Even in the world’s most dangerous places we must now establish the right of ALL children to schooling and make a new idea of education without borders a permanent reality.

However, the Safe Schools Initiative now raises a far wider question. Exactly what are we doing to do to help children in conflict zones?

How do we stop schools from being used as theatres of war? There are more than 20 million children currently being denied an education because they live in areas of conflict and in disaster zones.

Yet despite the growing numbers caught up in tragedy, in 2014 only one per cent of overall humanitarian aid and two per cent of humanitarian appeals was spent on education. How can we fail our children so pathetically?

The promise of Safe Schools is critical but the end result of having no schooling at all is unthinkable. Children out of school are at immediate risk of child labour, recruitment as child soldiers, early marriage and other forms of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Three months after April’s earthquake disaster, which took the lives of 8,000 people, hundreds of thousands of Nepalese girls and boys are still at grave risk – homeless, still on the street and not at school, and easy prey for gangs of child traffickers intent on selling them on to India for little more than $500 a time.

In conflict and emergencies, investment in education can both save lives in the short-term and billions of dollars in opportunity costs in the long-term.

Now, for the first time, there is potential for a Global Humanitarian Fund for Education in Emergencies to be created, which will trigger additional resources and efficiently coordinate aid that bridges humanitarian aid at the onset of an emergency, with development assistance in the rebuilding phase.

On July 7, international donors and education partners will come together in Oslo to mobilize renewed political commitment to the 58 million children that remain out of school.

So much can be achieved, and quickly and key lessons can be learned from the Safe Schools Initiative, particularly on teamwork and a collective will to muck in and get things done.

A policy memo was developed by A World at School, based on best practice from UN agencies, NGOs and the work of the global coalition to protect education from attack.  The memo highlighted school-based and community-based interventions to protect education and ensure its continuation should emergencies occur.

A group of Nigerian business leaders then provided an initial $10 million fund. The following day, the government committed an additional $10 million. During the following weeks, commitments were made by the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany and the African Development Bank to support the initiative.

By November, a United Nations multi-donor trust fund was established to channel additional international resources to the project with pledges from several additional governments.

It is now beginning to make a huge difference in the three northern states currently in a state of emergency. The initiative focuses on lighting, communications devices, emergency plans and the promotion of safe zones for education, consisting of teachers, parents, police, community leaders and young people themselves.

For the students at highest risk, alternative schooling arrangements are being developed.  One of the first projects was to allow 2,400 of the most at-risk students hit hardest by Boko Haram’s terrorist activities to enrol in federal schools.

The scheme is voluntary and is with parental consent. The students who relocate are provided with basic expenses such as food and books. Some funds will be made available to parents who will be going to the schools to visit their sons and daughters. Additional safe school projects are in the process of being rolled out across the three states.

It is working and it will flourish wherever it is rolled out. Now we need to move rapidly to ensure another major milestone in the quest for Total Education.

In the next few days we need commitment and we need ‘can do’ – countries coming to Oslo, helping to contribute with purpose and agreeing to move forward with agreed principles and starting the work to do things differently.

We urgently need to avoid the nightmare that could easily become a reality – millions of children who could spend their whole school-age years without ever entering a classroom.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Gordon Brown is the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education.

Image: Girls stand inside their classroom at a primary school in Dobley town, 10 km (6 miles) from the Kenya-Somalia border. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya 

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