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Julia Gillard’s Education Plan Hits Close to Home

Australia’s former prime minister, Julia Gillard, is now chair of the board at the Global Partnership for Education. She tells Women and Girls Hub about how education changed her life and how she’s planning to get more girls into school.

Written by Deborah Kan Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Former Australian prime minister and on the board of directors of the Global Partnership for Education, Julia Gillard speaks at the 6th Annual Social Good Summit in New York, an initiative of United Nations Foundation.Stuart Ramson/AP Images for UN Foundation

The Millennium Development Goals on education have focused on access to primary school. As a result of the MDGs, completion rates have gone up 15 percent, and 31 of more than 60 developing countries have gender parity in terms of young children going to school. Despite the improvement, less overseas development investment has gone into education over the same period. Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia and now chair of the board at the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), tells Women and Girls Hub about their plan to get more girls to stay in school.

Women and Girls Hub: Why is less overseas money going into investing in education?

Julia Gillard: What we’re trying to do next, and what the world is trying to do next, is to broaden the degree of access – so pre-primary as well as primary school, into lower secondary school – and, importantly, to increase the quality. To answer the challenge that there are 124 million children of primary and lower secondary age who aren’t in school, that at current rates of change, it might not be until 2111 that we see the first generation of sub-Saharan African girls to universally go to primary and lower secondary. That will be the last one to get there. None of us will live to see it. And, to deepen quality, because there are tens of millions of children who go to school for periods like four years, and come out not able to write a word, do the most simple mathematical sum – so they’ve sat in something called a school, but they aren’t learning.

Against that degree of challenge, we have seen international investment in education through overseas development aid go backwards by about 8 percent. My explanation for that is: First, education is a patient investment, and this can be a very “let’s get it done right now” world, and I think sometimes donors are attracted to the things where they can see and feel results quite quickly.

Second, I think people did lose confidence in the access measures, and so it’s for us in the education community, to be focused on the data and the learning outcomes, the quality, to reassure donors that money is making a difference.

Women and Girls Hub: What about the adolescent years, with so many obstacles to keeping girls in school, from menstruation to child marriage?

Julia Gillard: For girls, and for adolescent girls, we’ve got good evidence that proper planning of where schools are going to go is important. How long the journey to school is, how unsafe the journey to school is, makes a difference. In countries as difficult as Côte d’Ivoire and Yemen, we’ve worked with developing country partners to get the distribution of schooling right, so that girls don’t face long journeys.

The sanitation facilities available in school, whether or not there are toilets at all, can make a big difference for adolescent girls. For the poorest of families, who are making very hard choices about how to get through every day, there’s good evidence that very small cash transfer programs and school feeding programs will change the equation in their mind. If the big challenge for them every day is getting everybody enough to eat in the family, if they know their girl [is] going to get a meal during the day, that can make the difference.

We also know that the workforce, the availability of female teachers, can make a difference. In a country like Afghanistan, we’ve worked on female workforces, and now 42 percent of teachers are women. Interestingly, 42 percent of the kids in school are girls. You’re clearly seeing an attraction factor towards the female teachers.

Women and Girls Hub: Is there an example, so far, of a partnership with a government that has really worked, in terms of the way that you are structuring your relationship, and getting education to proliferate on the ground?

Julia Gillard: In Yemen we did the mapping exercise on school construction – [mapping] where schools should go, so they’re close to girls’ homes. There was more training of women teachers. There was the elimination of school fees for the poorest families. There was the running of information campaigns on girls’ education in local media, and through traditional leaders, and that got girls’ enrollment up. We got a 23 percent increase in the GPE-targeted areas.

Now, clearly, there’s instability and violence in Yemen. You take some steps forward, and unfortunately, you can get knocked back on progress, but in an environment where a lot of people would, I think, just quickly conclude … I think many people around the world, if they think of a country like Yemen, they would think of a place where cultural predispositions would be so strong that it would almost be impossible to get girls to school. That isn’t our experience, working in partnership with the government in Yemen, with civil society, with teachers, with other donors.

Women and Girls Hub: You were a statistics major in college, what purpose did education serve in your own life?

Julia Gillard: I was born in the United Kingdom, in Wales – we’re a migrant family. I migrated to Australia when I was four years old, so I don’t have any early memories of being somewhere else, or being a migrant. I went to the local schools, local government schools and was able to go to university because of the Labour government. Australia had abolished university fees. That happened in the early 1970s, and I started university in 1979, so in everybody’s life, timing and luck can mean a lot.

When I got to university, I was an economics major with a healthy dose of statistics. In my second year of university, a conservative government had some big funding cutbacks, and I got involved in a campaign to change the government’s mind. I got involved in the student union. Hence my attendance at lectures was less, and my reliance on other people’s notes and the textbooks got greater. I ended up being national president of the student union, and by the time I came out of that and finished my university qualifications, I was very interested in public policy and education policy, in gender, in women, and sort of the rest, as they say, is history.

Women and Girls Hub: So education gave you the ability to believe you could become a prime minister?

Julia Gillard: Yes, it did. It was very strong in my family home, for different reasons. My mother and my father did not get a good education. My father left school at 14, and that was simply [due to] poverty; he grew up in a coal mining village in south Wales, one of seven children. Even though he won a scholarship to continue his secondary schooling, the family couldn’t afford not to have him working. My mother was very unwell as a child, she had a very discontinuous education career, and drifted out of school quite early.

Both of them were intelligent people, voracious readers, interested in current affairs. They always had this sense of, “What if, what could our lives have been if we’d got a good opportunity to finish school? Or maybe a good opportunity to do something, study-wise, after school?”

This really, very much, impressed upon my sister and I that education was precious, and we had an obligation to get in and make the most of it. I did my schooling in the 60s and 70s, so not every family was saying this to their girls, but my mother and father were certainly saying to my sister and I, “You should think big about your futures. You should want to go to university. You should want to have a career.”

Women and Girls Hub: As a female prime minister, did you experience discrimination?

Julia Gillard: On discrimination, I wrote a book about my time as prime minister, and I entitled one chapter: “The Curious Question of Gender.” I tried to go through some of the gender-based issues around my prime ministership, and it’s complex. Australian politics is very rough and tumble, and any Australian political leader is going to be subject to hard-hitting critique.

There are things that flow from that that can be personally challenging and confronting, that would happen to any political leader, but there were some things that happened to me because of gender. I tried to deal with them in the book. The more politically choppy the waters got for me and my government, the more the gendered insult became the kind of go-to weapon: the analysts’ focus on appearance questions, distracting from the ability to sustain political debates on important issues.

I ended up concluding that it would have been better to have named it earlier, when you first got the stupid articles about, “Here’s our prime minister at NATO, talking about a war in Afghanistan, where we’ve got troops who are fighting and dying,” and the first few lines of it is what I’m wearing, that I should have said then, “Look men and women of the media, we aren’t doing this,” and tried to get it named, and thought about, and talked through earlier, rather than just assuming that it would work its way out of the system.

I’m conscious that, whilst these issues are important, and we’ve got a journey to fight in women and leadership in our own societies, we can’t forget that the real frontier for gender equality is in places where girls don’t get to go to school, don’t get anything like an equal life chance, confront the most hideous gender violence, and child marriage, and [face] a complete denial of personal freedoms, options and choices.

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