Sustainable Development

Why we need 12 school years for every child

Meighan Stone
Director, Malala Fund
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Sustainable Development

This is part of a series on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre. This article focuses on goal 4 – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. 

Like all parents, I have dreams for my child and his education. As my son goes off to school each morning, I hope he will be happy, enjoy his teacher and classmates and become an ambitious learner.

We are right to celebrate ambition in education. At the UN General Assembly in New York next week, world leaders will formally adopt the latest set of global goals designed to end poverty and improve prosperity around the globe. And these Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include big plans for the world’s children.

Goal 4 sets the bar: by 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education.

SDGsSource: Jakob Trollbäck 

That means 12 years of education for every child, no matter who they are or where they live. Anything less than what we want for our own sons and daughters is not acceptable for the children of others, particularly those living in the poorest nations.

As Malala Yousafzai said when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, “The world can no longer accept that a basic education is enough. Why do leaders accept that for children in developing countries, only basic literacy is sufficient, when their own children do homework in algebra, mathematics, science and physics?”

Can we agree enough with the glossy NGO brochures of nameless girls from developing countries in substandard, crowded classrooms, while we push our own daughters to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)? We need to be honest that we’ve accepted low ambition for these girls, not realizing or supporting their intelligence, worth and agency.


This also means refugees and children facing conflict. You don’t need to spend more than five minutes with a Syrian parent in a refugee camp to understand what they want for their children is the same as what you want, what any elected leader wants for his or her children. We want them to achieve their potential. The divisions between North and South, and beneficiary and donor, must be confronted and dismantled. Malala challenges us to do this every day at the Malala Fund, and it’s overdue.

Secondary education is fundamental to economic growth, global health, climate action and women’s rights. Without reaching the goal of 12 years of education for all children, the rest of the SDGs – designed to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all – are unachievable.

Consider the evidence:

  • If 1% more women had a secondary education, economic growth would increase by 0.3%. (World Bank)
  • If all women in low and lower middle income countries completed secondary education, the under-five mortality rate would fall by 49% and early births would fall by 59%. (United Nations)
  • The percentage of people concerned about the environment and climate change in a country increases with education, from 25% in countries with primary education only to 37% in countries providing secondary education. (World Bank)
  • In countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage, girls with no education are six times more likely to marry as children than girls with a secondary education. (United Nations)

As Malala has said, “Who knows how much brilliance the world was deprived of by millions of girls missing out on secondary education. Perhaps there was a transformative leader in that generation, an inspiring writer, a scientist who might solve the world’s most pressing problems.”

Girls and women are ready to lead. But they need their leaders to commit to providing universal primary and secondary education.

We also need an additional $39 billion a year to make sure every child gets 12 years of quality education. And we have the money – $39 billion is the equivalent of just eight days of global military spending and only 6.5% of the United States’ yearly military budget; $39 billion is the amount of money “lost” to corruption in Nigeria in 2013. Last year, the UK agreed to spend $39 billion to build a new nuclear power plant.

Together, we can afford it. And it will buy us a better world.

If we want a safer, more prosperous and equitable future for our own kids, we need to give all children 12 years of school. At this point, the SDGs are mere ambitions on paper. We now need to spend the next 15 years to make good on them, and unlock the promise they contain for every girl and boy.

Have you read?
4 ways countries are successfully fighting hunger
How can we eradicate poverty by 2030?
5 ways to improve health and well-being for all

Author: Meighan Stone is Director of the Malala Fund

Guest editor of this series is Owen Gaffney, Director, International Media and Strategy, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth

Image: An Afghan child studies at an open area on the outskirts of Jalalabad province, Afghanistan November 11, 2013. REUTERS/Parwiz

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