Last week, the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at Brookings announced that former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has joined Brookings as a nonresident senior fellow. We are very excited to have Julia as part of Brookings and the CUE family and we are very much looking forward to working with her on our key initiatives on global education, particularly girls’ education in developing countries.
I recently interviewed Julia on her work on education reform in Australia, her decision to work with CUE on global education, and what advice she would give girls and young women around the world who are trying to overcome daily challenges just to get an education.
Rebecca Winthrop: When you were prime minister of Australia, you made education a top priority for your government. What was your motivation behind this and what do you think are your greatest achievements here?
Julia Gillard: Education policy was always the area closest to my heart because I knew from my own life experience the immense power of education to transform your future. My parents, both intelligent and hardworking, were denied access to education. They have both enjoyed long happy lives but undoubtedly they would have had different and richer lives if they had been given true access to education. In contrast, I was fortunate enough to get a great education and it made me. What is true for individuals is true for nations. I knew Australia would be a smarter, stronger, fairer country if we could improve education. I knew the lives of millions could be changed for the better. That’s what drove me on.
RW: Why have you chosen to focus your efforts in particular on advancing global education after serving a long and distinguished career in government with achievements in many different policy areas?
JG: The same passion for transforming life’s opportunities through education, which drove me in Australian politics, is driving me still. If we want our world to have the best possible future then we must maximize and harness the talents of all. If we want our world to have the fairest future then we must bring education’s power to those now denied it.
RW: What do you think is the toughest challenge to improving education around the world, including in low and middle-income countries?
JG: The world has been mobilizing through the Millennium Development Goals to ensure universal access to primary school education. There is still more to do on access given we have around 50 million children not in school. But even as we address this and build access to more senior levels of education, the next tough challenge is ensuring the quality of the education provided. What lies before us is hard, rigorous work on measuring and improving quality.
RW: As the first female prime minister of Australia, you broke a lot of barriers. What advice would you give girls and young women around the world, particularly those in developing countries who face everyday challenges in just trying to go to school to get an education?
JG: I stand in awe of women and girls around the world who courageously strive to get an education and improve their lives despite the most hideous, violent persecution and grinding poverty. My life has been so incredibly easy by comparison. But if asked my advice, I would say always believe in your own power and strength to make a difference to your own life and the lives of others.
Esther Care, an education expert at the Brookings Institution, calls the A-F grading system “nonsense.” “Grades are mere proxies for what we value. What we actually value is our children being prepared for the future,” she said. “We need to find ways in educational assessment to convey information about the degree to which they are ready to venture out and to deal constructively with the huge challenges posed by our 21st century.