By Kwame Buist
And yet, with 2030 – the year set by the United Nations for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals – looming on the horizon, the world is lagging behind, prompting the UN Secretary-General to issue a global call for a Decade of Action to accelerate their implementation.
“Education has the power to shape the world,” Mohammed said on January 24. “Education protects men and women from exploitation in the labour market” and “empowers women and gives them opportunities to make choices”.
Moreover, it can help change behaviour and perceptions, thereby fighting climate change and unsustainable practices, she argued, explaining that a quality experience in the classroom helps promote mutual respect and understanding between people; combat misperceptions, prejudice and hate speech; and prevent violent extremism.
However, she noted, “the situation in education is alarming…because of the crisis in the number of children, young people and adults who are not in education”, as well as because many who are, are not learning.
And refugees and migrants face additional challenges.
According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the proportion of refugees enrolled in secondary education is 24 percent, only three percent of whom have access to higher education.
“We have the power to shape education, but only if we work together and really bring the partnerships that are necessary to provide quality education”, concluded Mohammed. “We have a duty to step up our efforts, so that quality education for all is no longer a goal for tomorrow, but a reality”.
Addressing the meeting, the President of the UN General Assembly Tijjani Muhammad-Bande said that “the education sector is wrestling with mammoth challenges worldwide” and there has been a “precipitate decline” in the quality and standards of education; a widening knowledge gap between students in technically advanced societies and those in developing countries; a crisis of learning in conflict zones; growing school bullying, and “the declining esteem of the teaching profession” overall.
Muhammad-Bande maintained that today’s education must “bridge the yawning gap” between the modern employment needs for specialised skills, and actual learning opportunities.
“School curricula have yet to anticipate and respond to workplace needs for hands-on, vocational, ICT applications, and sundry technical skills, while still advancing the traditional scholastic pursuits”, he said.
Moreover, “the significance of the deficits in education outcome becomes obvious when viewed alongside the spiralling population crisis”.
The meeting drew attention to the fate of school children trapped in conflict zones who deserve urgent attention.
According to UNICEF, in 2017, 500 attacks were staged on schools in 20 countries worldwide. In 15 of those 20, troops and rebel forces turned classrooms into military posts.
Thousands of children were recruited to fight, sometimes made to serve as suicide bombers, or forced to endure direct attacks.
“The learning environment may also be rendered unsafe by gun-toting, machete-wielding, gangs and unruly youths, and by sexual predators on school premises”, Mr. Muhammad-Bande said.
At the same time, “the choices that education stakeholders make have direct impact on various social groups, particularly, disadvantaged groups like rural communities, the urban poor, persons with disabilities, and women”, said the President of the General Assembly, noting that nearly two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are female, mostly in under-developed countries.
Choice also becomes critical in the struggle to elevate the status of the teaching profession, recruit competent and motivated teachers, and expose teachers to innovative techniques.
According to Muhammad-Bande, education enhances the “analytical, inventive and critical thinking capacities of human beings” and in the process it accelerates each nation’s technological attainments and economic growth.
“When a society remains perpetually underdeveloped, it must among other things re-evaluate its education system,” he said. “If the system is dysfunctional or does not facilitate the acquisition of pertinent knowledge and skills, the economy will, at best, stagnate, and at worst, collapse”.
In her message to the meeting, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said that although education is “a valuable resource for humanity”, it is “all too scarce for millions of people around the world”.
A global learning crisis, confirmed by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, is “a major cause for concern as it is also a crisis for prosperity, for the planet, for peace and for people”, she said, urging everyone to take action for education “because education is the best investment for the future”.
UNESCO has been charged with coordinating the international community’s efforts to achieve SDG 4, which envisages quality education for all.
Mona Juul, President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) told the meeting that education is “the most powerful means to escape poverty”.
“It changes lives, transforms communities and paves the way towards productive, sustainable and resilient societies in which children – girls and boys – can reach their full potential”, she explained, urging everyone to strengthen their efforts to manifest a world in which every child receives a quality education that allows growth, prosperity and empowerment so they can “make meaningful contributions to communities big and small, everywhere.”