As education across the world faces tremendous challenges from the three C’s: climate change, conflicts and Covid-19, hitting the world’s youngest and most vulnerable children the hardest, the United Nations tackled the problem in a three-day summit that culminated on Monday, prodding world leaders to get all children back in the classroom. But at least one crucial leader, United States President Joe Biden, was not in the General Assembly Hall. He was attending the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in London.
“Education is not a luxury but a right,” said Joseph Maada Bio, the president of Sierra Leone and a co-chair of the Transforming Education Summit. The gathering highlighted the vast education gap in which millions of schoolchildren have been left out of the classroom, driving global inequalities wider. The main goal of the conference, held at the annual opening session of the General Assembly, is to create a fairer education system — using Sustainable Development Goal No. 4 as a guide — based on critical thinking, comprehension, computer skills, creativity and civic education.
Those five C’s should replace the three R’s of the 20th century — reading, writing and arithmetic — as “shock-resistant, inclusive education based on digital tools,” Lachezara Stoeva, president of the UN Economic and Social Council and Bulgaria’s ambassador to the UN, said on Sept. 19 in the “leaders” portion of the summit.
“The crisis in education we are facing is one of equity, inclusion and quality,” Stoeva added. “Millions of children, and especially girls and young women, could be shut out of a key path toward a brighter future. This is not only unjust; it is also an enormous loss of human potential, innovation, and creativity.”
Under Bio, Sierra Leone has made strides in uplifting its education system, he said. Despite Covid-19 and climate change challenges, in the last four years the West African country has added more than one million students to its enrollment in primary and secondary schools while achieving gender parity in the classroom, according to Bio, who also spoke to the Assembly on Sept. 19. He said that his country used education as a main path to national development by raising investment in education to 20 percent, increasing teachers’ salaries, making primary and secondary education free and zeroing in on girls.
The universal need for a basic but comprehensive education for every child worldwide was a theme echoed throughout the summit but grounded in Secretary-General António Guterres’s remarks, in which he spoke about, in a rare personal moment, his own schooling and role as a former teacher in Portugal. “I regard myself as a lifelong student,” he said. “And I have drawn great inspiration from my work as a teacher. Without education, where would I be? Where would any of us be? Every single person in this room knows education transforms lives, economies and societies.”
The summit is also meant to push Guterres’s Our Common Agenda ambitions to the UN’s 193 member states to build a more stable and prosperous planet. The three-day forum paid particular attention to the inclusion of girls and students with disability into the classroom, as these populations are extra-vulnerable to factors disrupting education. In societies stuck in conflict, for example, girls and young women are more likely to be burdened with family responsibilities that can keep them out of school, leading in some cases to early marriage and pregnancy. Bio noted that in Sierra Leone, “pregnant girls” are back in school.
Globally, more than 70 percent of 10-year-old children cannot read and comprehend a simple story, according to a new report from Unicef, Unesco and the World Bank. Before the pandemic, half of the world’s 10-year-olds could not achieve these rudimentary tasks, according to Audrey Azoulay, Unesco’s director-general. More than 244 million children will not be going to school at all this year. In sub-Saharan Africa, 89 percent of 10 year-olds fail at reading comprehension. Azoulay also noted, as a speaker on Sept. 19, the need for schools to teach critical thinking to counter rampant misinformation.
Guterres and Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister who is now the UN special envoy for education, launched a multibillion dollar finance facility to promote education globally at the summit. The initial $2 billion phase, with the first projects to get begin in 2023, the UN said, will focus on Africa and Asia.
A youth-led “mobilization day” kicked off the summit on Sept. 16, as youth advocates shared a “declaration,” presenting their recommendations to policymakers on the changes they’d like to see for revolutionizing education. On Monday, two of the advocates, one from Nigeria and another from Argentina, told the General Assembly delegates gathered before them that young people will no longer be “accepting your silence,” adding a bit later, “So far, you owe us.”
Nudhara Yusuf, who attended the summit as a youth advocate and works on global governance for the Stimson Center in Washington, said the youth day was a “powerful statement that as far as development and global transformation is concerned, young people are done with intergenerational dialogues and ready and capable of intergenerational partnerships.”
One human-rights organization, Justice for All, a group affiliated with the UN Department of Global Communications, bemoaned a lack of response to his efforts as a civil society group to be included in the summit. Adem Carroll, who runs the UN programs arm of Justice for All, said he got no response from the UN, “except very general replies that could have been generated by a computer.”
“Neither did I find success in my efforts to find out if civil society had a role or how to join the conference,” he added.
Malala Yousafzai, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Pakistani education activist who was shot by the Taliban in 2012 while sitting on a school bus, daring to get to class, chided world leaders to avoid “small, stingy and short-term pledges” and instead allocate 20 percent of their national budgets toward schooling. She also told rich countries to increase — rather than decrease — humanitarian aid to poorer countries and to cancel foreign debts.
Only one country is actually banning girls from learning: Afghanistan. At the General Assembly, Somaya Faruqi, captain of the Afghan Girls Robotics team, known as the Afghan Dreamers, coolly reminded the delegates that Afghan girls have been prohibited from attending secondary school by the Taliban for a year. “The Taliban is trying to erase our existence,” Faruqi said.
Afterward, away from the limelight of the Assembly rostrum, she broke into tears.
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Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.