Julia Gillard: There is more interest in education than ever before

Julia Gillard on why ensuring quality education for all children is in everyone's interest and sexism in politics.

Julia Gillard | Photo credit: GPE/Grant Ellis

By Julie Levy-Abegnoli

29 May 2017

You probably remember Julia Gillard as Australia's first - and to date, only - female prime minister. Her speech on misogyny in the Australian Parliament has amassed millions of views on YouTube, prompted compliments from world leaders and even has its own Wikipedia page. 

These days, Gillard plays in a different ballpark. She quit politics in 2013 and now chairs the board of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), which supports developing countries in ensuring quality education for children.

Gillard was in Brussels earlier this month meeting with Belgian and EU officials, advocating for the organisation's next replenishment and hoping to mobilise $3.1bn in funds for 2018-2020.


She explains that GPE is "the only multilateral institution that focuses solely on education in developing countries. Our board consists of developing country representatives, donor representatives, civil society and the private sector. In total, 89 countries are eligible for the partnership."

The group, which is run out of the World Bank, gets its funding through official development assistance and philanthropy. It follows "the theory of change", says Gillard.

"We work with developing countries to develop a good plan for schooling. This has driven change - there are more children going to school, more completing primary school and more girls going to school. This is education's time, there is more interest in it than there's ever been before."

Gillard firmly believes that, "quality schooling can make the long-term difference between countries remaining fragile and conflict ridden, or countries finding a more peaceful and prosperous path. The evidence certainly shows that education can make a difference to economic growth and to peace and stability. If we're going to make a long-term change, education is the best place to do that."

As Europe continues to grapple with the years-long refugee crisis, the former Australian leader says improving access to quality education could be one of the solutions. 

"When families that have moved to Europe are asked why they risked such dangerous journeys, many of them say they were searching quality education for their child. If we can meet the aspirations for quality education, then that does have implications for people movement. 

"It is, of course, not the complete solution, because there are many other reasons why people are forced to leave the place that they've called home. However, providing an education for children would make a difference."

GPE also works extensively on improving access to education for girls; "There is no one solution that works in every country, but we've worked with developing country partners on school feeding programmes; that has attracted families to having their girls at school. For very poor families, the fact that their girl is going to get fed in school can make the difference between keeping her at home and having her go to school." 

Another tactic has been training female teachers so that girls can be taught by women; this encourages families to send their daughters to school.

At a time when countries might be reluctant to dole out more development aid, it's not always easy to garner funding and interest for this type of endeavour, but, says Gillard, "In this world in which we live, this very connected world, everybody has an interest in ensuring the education of every child. For many people, that's a question of the heart - they feel emotionally engaged in ensuring every child gets the best possible start in life."

To those who are, as Gillard puts it, "just doing the absolutely hard-headed, 'what's in it for me' calibration", she has this to say: "We will see poverty and aid dependency in our world forever unless we enable nations to build their economies and enjoy prosperity. 

"We won't be able to do that unless they have an educated population. If you look at Korea, the country emerged from the ruins of the Korean War to being the prosperous G20 economy that it is today. It didn't do that o  the back of substantial natural resources, it did it off education."

Of course, it was impossible to sit down with Gillard without asking her about sexism in politics, something she faced during her time as Prime Minister. Have things progressed since her 2012 speech? 

"In many ways, I think unfortunately progress has stalled a bit. We saw a growth in the number of female MPs, but now we've stalled and more needs to be done for us to live in an equal world. 

"Social media has given a channel for very sexist material to be circulated, often anonymously. Female MEPs have to put up with that, whereas 10, 15 years ago that wasn't in our world, the kind of vile abuse that can end up on Twitter and in other places. We have to redouble our efforts to end up with genuine equality."

Gillard acknowledges that this is "a complex problem that rarely has silver bullet solutions", but says that for political parties, "thinking about how they reach into communities and recruit the next generation matters. 

"Quotas or targets will help drive change, but it's not the only way of doing so. Unless political parties are thoughtful about how they attract people to their cause, we won't end up with men and women attracted in equal numbers."

She adds, "In the day to day practice of politics there needs to be cultural change - the focus that there is on women's appearance and family structures makes it more difficult for them. Many parliaments and political systems haven't thought about how to help MPs balance work and family life. It can be hard for both men and women with young children to be in politics and away from home."

Still, Gillard says that any young woman considering going into politics should "go for it. If you know why you want to do it, what you want to change and if you have passion for public policy - go for it. Be aware that there will be some days that are tough and potentially gendered and sexist, but for all that, the opportunities you get through politics to build a better world are unrivalled in any other professional vocation."


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