The Covid-19 pandemic´s impact on education has been dramatic all over the world; but the truth is that the situation was already critical before the pandemic, both in terms of access and in terms of learning.
Before the pandemic, 285 million children were not attending school; and about half of those who did attend school in developing countries were unable to read a basic sentence by 10 years of age.
Many were entering a precarious labour market lacking the knowledge, skills or values needed to thrive in a rapidly changing world. These deficits were often felt most by girls and by marginalised groups such as those living in poverty, persons with disabilities, those located in rural areas or international migrants.
On top of this came the pandemic and, since then, the situation became dramatically worse. Students have lost out on important learning and regressed on previous learning; many risk never returning to school; and informality, inactivity and job insecurity have all increased. It is a crisis over a crisis.
That is why the Transforming Education Summit took place in Paris this week. We must turn the tide on this crisis. In terms of education, it would not be enough merely to recover from the pandemic and then return to where we were in 2019. We must be more ambitious. We must make sure that we don’t just go back, but that we go “back to the future”.
The goal of the summit was to galvanise the social and political commitment to promote such transformation so that we can really guarantee a quality education for every boy and girl on this planet, as we had agreed in the Sustainable Development Goal on education (SDG4). This is their right: to receive the kind of education that would allow them to become the persons they want to be and to contribute as active agents of their own future. That is the role of education.
The summit process was organised through three workstreams. First, we had national consultations in every country aimed at assessing their current situation and critical issues. On that basis, heads of state will commit themselves with the transformations of education they regard as essential for their country to achieve SDG4.
Second, there is the public engagement and mobilisation workstream. If we are going to galvanise political commitment, we must make a lot of noise, we must put education at the top of the table again and, for that, the voices of youth, teachers, educational communities are essential. We need to create a global movement for the transformation of education.
Finally, we have the action tracks which deal with the substantive transformations we are promoting. For this, we are not starting from scratch, but from the state-of-the-art knowledge we have, the best practices we know, also the mistakes we often make, and use all of it to put a spotlight on five areas of education where transformation is critical:
- Transforming our schools into inclusive and safe learning environments;
- Transforming the content and the methods of education, so that it is really foundational, really education for work and education for life — for learning how to live together, for equality, for democracy, for peace, and, of course, for sustainable development;
- Transforming the conditions and the resources with which teachers work, so that they can transform the way in which they teach;
- Harnessing the digital revolution so that teachers and students have free and open access to digital learning resources, as well as connectivity and the required gadgets; and
- We must radically transform the financing of educational investment. We cannot say that education is our priority if we are not assigning the necessary resources in the budget to make universal quality education a reality.
We cannot save on education. That would be a terrible mistake, the same mistake we made during the 1980s crisis. In many countries, educational investment was cut because of the debt and fiscal crises. Teachers’ salaries fell, investment in school infrastructure fell, enrolment fell … and education fell short.
That was 40 years ago and we are still paying the price in terms of both poverty and inequality, also in terms of growth.
This cannot happen again. Education is a global public good. The learning crisis is as real and as urgent as any other crisis and its consequences last longer and have an impact in every aspect of our lives — and of our children’s lives.
And that is precisely why the secretary-general convened this week’s summit — to get heads of state to commit in September at the UN, with a precursor at Unesco headquarters in Paris this week, gathering close to 150 education ministers and deputy ministers.
The future of our world depends on the present of our schools. To transform our future, we must transform education. And to transform education we must turn our ideas and our research into action through a real commitment from governments and international institutions to implement and fund such actions.
That is our task. That is our duty with every girl and every boy who, today, is out of school, or out of learning. They will be the judges of what we do or fail to do today. We cannot fail them.