Full text of Henry Smith MP's speech in the Westminster Hall Debate on Global Education for the Most Marginalised, 26th February 2019.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me in this important debate on global education for the most marginalised. It is a pleasure, once again, to serve under your chairmanship. In the light of those time constraints, I will attempt to be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this important debate and on the powerful message in his speech.
Earlier this month, I received an email from the assistant headteacher of Northgate Primary School in my constituency, to let me know that, like many schools up and down the UK, they will take part in the Send My Friend To School campaign this year. The school has invited me to their year 5 assembly in support of that cause. I was delighted to accept the invitation and I look forward to meeting the pupils and teachers at the school in a few weeks’ time. I will share with them a copy of Hansard so that they can read this debate for themselves.
Half of all children with disabilities in low and middle-income countries do not go to school at all. I know that I am not alone in my experience of visiting schools in the developing world—the hon. Member for Glasgow East mentioned our visit to Tanzania with RESULTS UK—and I echo the concern about the many children, particularly those with disabilities such as visual or hearing impairments, who are often at the back of a very large classroom. I have seen classrooms of over 100 students where those with special education needs are marginalised. They really need to be at the front, especially in a classroom environment that would be challenging for any of us given the numbers involved. There is also more deliberate exclusion, with certain groups of children sometimes being blocked by laws and policies restricting their access to education, as we heard in the introductory speech.
Northgate Primary in my constituency and hundreds of other schools across the UK are supporting the call to “unlock education for everyone”. Through its support for the Global Partnership for Education and the Girls’ Education Challenge, the UK has supported 11.4 million children, including 40,000 girls with disabilities, to gain a decent education. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State places a high importance on the role of education, and I urge her to continue to ensure that the UK Government use forums such as the G7, G20, the UN and others, to keep this matter at the forefront.
It must never be forgotten that UK aid is of course British taxpayer’s money. UK support for education in the developing world goes far beyond what the Government can do. My constituency of Crawley is home to Vision Aid Overseas, which, for more than 30 years, has helped some of the world’s poorest people to see more clearly. Their Christmas appeal last year exceeded its target of raising £50,000 to help provide school-based eye health services across Ethiopia, Zambia and Sierra Leone to over 180,000 children. Crawley can be proud of the contribution that a locally based charity is making globally.
Vision Aid Overseas has been supported by the Department for International Development, with a three-year project to help improve the livelihoods and educational outcomes of adults and children across rural Ethiopia—a country where up to 10% of children have easily correctable vision problems. More than 184,000 patients were screened during the programme, with almost 15,000 of them receiving glasses and over 5,000 being referred for minor surgery. The organisation also trained more than 700 teachers to be able to identify common eye issues in their students, which has resulted in more than 2,500 children who previously struggled to see receiving new prescription glasses. Almost three quarters of children surveyed at the conclusion of the programme showed an improvement in their grades, reaffirming that promoting eye health in schools can improve children’s attainment in a tangible way.
That is only one example, but a reminder of what can be done to support and empower some of the poorest and most marginalised. Up and down the UK, such efforts are being made by groups such as Vision Aid Overseas in my constituency.
I hope that the students of Northgate Primary School in Crawley will be able to look at this debate to see how seriously we are taking this issue across the House. Schools in this country realise the importance of ensuring that all young people get a chance of an education, which will better help a more secure and prosperous world for all our futures.