This is a crucial year for education. Children starting school this year will complete their 12 years of basic education by 2030. The United Nations’ fourth sustainable development goal — “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” — comes under the spotlight at the UN’s high-level political forum. The thematic review of goal four aims to identify the progress made and challenges encountered in its implementation, and most importantly, to assess interlinkages with other sustainable development goals.
The theme of the Global Action Week for Education — “Making the right to an inclusive, equitable, quality, free public education a reality” — is the pressing issue of our time. Global challenges such as poverty, increased inequality, migration, human-induced climate impact and political interferences that lead to internal and cross-border humanitarian crises are deterrents to the effective implementation of education that is truly equitable, just, inclusive and transformative. The education 2030 agenda is our universal response to ensure we address these challenges.
Despite significant improvements in literacy and narrowing of the gender gap, 750-million adults, two-thirds of whom were women, remained illiterate in 2016. Today, millions of children and youth in school lack the minimum literacy and numeracy skills because of overcrowded classrooms and inadequately trained teachers.
In 2017, 262-million children of primary and secondary schoolgoing age were out of school. Education in emergencies is a human rights atrocity that can no longer be ignored.
Last month, in the wake of Cyclone Idai, hundreds of thousands of children were affected: in Mozambique about 263 000 children were out of school after more than 3 300 classrooms were destroyed; in Zimbabwe, 150 schools and an estimated 60 000 children were affected; and an estimated 200 schools were negatively affected by the disaster in Malawi.
The pernicious nature of conflict and wars is also detrimental to future societies of the affected communities. In Burkina Faso, hundreds of schools have closed because of the threat of terrorist attacks. War-torn countries such as Yemen and Syria will take years, if not decades, to recover. What will become of the millions of children not attending school because their classrooms have been bombed by governments and militia? Who will account for the severe shortage of teachers because of unpaid service?
Enough is enough. Society can no longer sit back and watch as children are forced out of school and in some cases, recruited as child soldiers by armed groups. Are we building a society that promotes war over education? The failure to solve these difficult challenges points, in part, to a continuing lack of the necessary political will and of inadequate investment in the education agenda.
The role of civil society
Despite numerous commitments to collective and inclusive participation by governments and the international community, many national education coalitions and civil society organisations remain excluded from the planning, implementation and monitoring of the fourth sustainable development goal.
Although there is some attempt to keep schools open and bring a sense of normalcy to traumatised children, effective institutionalised mechanisms for social dialogue with the teaching profession are too often not in place, and education activists, union representatives and students are often criminalised or brutally repressed for the work they do.
The exclusion of legitimate civil society is a contradiction of the collective commitment made to implement and monitor the fourth sustainable development goal. Over the years, civil society has broken barriers and influenced the direction of education policy and delivery in their countries, through building their reach, their skills in monitoring, research and policy analysis, and their capacity to engage with and influence policymakers.
To truly leave no one behind, civil society is mounting pressure on governments to fulfil their commitments to provide free, compulsory public basic education for all people, in particular for children, women and those from excluded communities.
In late 2018 at the Global Citizen Festival, an impressive $495.3-million was committed to education, specifically in the areas of gender equality and education, and ensuring that all children attend school. These efforts resulted in 289 291 actions, five commitments and seven announcements delivered, affecting more than 31.5-million lives.
Although these pledges must be applauded, sleeves must still be rolled up to ensure that the means of implementation exist in order to fully attain the fourth sustainable development goal.
My education, my right(s)
We know that education is indispensable to the achievement of all the sustainable development goals and is at the heart of the sustainable development agenda. The Global Campaign for Education believes that education is the most sustainable long-term driver of social, economic and environmental justice; and that education is key to foster sustainable, gender-equal, peaceful, democratic and resilient societies.
Without quality education for all, the future looks bleak. Citizens will lack skills to interrogate and actively participate as assertive holders of their basic human rights. Without quality and inclusive education, children with disabilities remain on the outskirts of society, attending special needs schools and taught in separate classes.
Inclusive education encourages children with and without disabilities to participate and learn together, fostering better learning opportunities for all.
Transformative education must address broader issues and embrace collective social endeavours beyond the skills acquired in classrooms.
During the 2019 Global Week of Education, we call on governments to step up to the challenge and play an active role in promoting education and lifelong learning opportunities for all. Civil society is a strong and valuable partner and should be consulted and involved in decision-making at all levels. We cannot do without education. Education is key to form tomorrow’s citizens — it is not only a right but an enabler of all other rights.
Refaat Sabbah, a human rights and education activist, is president of the Global Campaign for Education