On 10th November, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay and French President Emmanuel Macron co-hosted the 2021 Global Education Meeting (GEM) at UNESCO’s Headquarters in Paris, with the Heads of State and ministers of education from more than 40 countries in attendance, to strengthen global and national political commitment to education.
Some of the eminent dignitaries in attendance included H.E. Sahle-Work Zewde, President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and Chair of the International Commission on the Futures of Education; H.E. Hage Geingob, President of Namibia; H.E. Najla Bouden Rodhane, Prime Minister, Tunisia; H.E. Iván Duque Márquez, President of the Republic of Colombia; H.E. Alassane Dramane Ouattara, President of the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire; H.E. Aleksandar Vučić, President of Serbia; H.E. Kyriákos Mitsotákis, Prime Minister of Greece; Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education; and the Education Ministers from Bangladesh, Argentina, Columbia, Portugal, France to name a few.
The exchanges during GEM led to the adoption of the Paris Declaration on Education, with the participating States committing to improve education investments by relying on public financing and public-private cooperation. They called for the need to prioritise education as the most powerful investment for the future, to consider education financing beyond the education budget and to examine states tax policies and policy trade-offs. They also called for increased international aid to education, making it a priority to reach the target of 0.7% of donor GNP for official development assistance.
The progress and commitments made as part of the Paris Declaration will be monitored by UNESCO’s SDG4 -Education 2030 High Level Steering Committee (HLSC). The Committee comprises a multi-partner and multi-stakeholder configuration to spur action and create momentum to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education, as part of Agenda 2030.
The COVID-19 pandemic inflicted the worst shock to the education systems in a century, with more than 1.6 billion children and youth not being able to attend school for months, with many still not being back. As schools in developed nations moved to digital platforms, over 500 million students, mainly in the South, had no access to distance learning. Due to the partial or full school closures, over 100 million additional children will fall below the minimum proficiency level in reading as a result of the pandemic.
To address the learning losses and chart a roadmap of recovery, UNESCO quickly mobilised resources, ensuring educational continuity in 112 countries. Despite this unprecedented mobilization, the situation remains worrying – according to UNESCO’s latest count, schools are still totally or partially closed in 65 countries, affecting 750 million students. The progress made in education has been rolled back during the lockdowns, especially the education of girls – whose schooling was already precarious in several low-income countries. Due to the effects of the pandemic, UNESCO estimates that 11 million girls worldwide are at risk of not returning to school after the lockdowns.
These risks, especially exacerbated due to the pandemic, underscore the urgent need to address the severe under-investment in education globally. Since 2015, UNESCO Member States agreed on a level of educational funding of 4 to 6% of GDP or 15 to 20% of public expenditure, but the majority of countries have not yet reached this threshold. Moreover, it appears that low-income countries only allocated 1% of the amount of the post COVID-19 stimulus packages to education, while the richest countries only spent 2.9% of that package on education.
Speaking at the Heads of State meeting, Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General said “The COVID-19 pandemic has come to underscore for everyone around the world the critical importance of education as a global public good. In the midst of the crisis, the international coalition initiated by UNESCO helped meet the most urgent needs. We have helped more than 400 million students and 12 million teachers in 112 countries. Today, while the immediate urgency of the crisis may seem to have passed, we must maintain our mobilization. It is imperative that we prioritize education as the most powerful investment for our common future. If we do not invest in education now, the cost will be much higher for generations to come.”
Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, said: “With the pandemic, we have also experienced an education crisis of unprecedented magnitude, adding to the challenges of achieving universal access to quality education. At the height of the crisis, in late March 2020, 90% of the world’s schoolchildren, or more than 1.6 billion students, saw their schools close. This shock hit the most vulnerable children hard, especially girls. In France and throughout the world, we are committed to making access to education a priority. Because school is the best place to build a common project and a shared destiny for our societies. School represents the victory of the Enlightenment and science over all forms of obscurantism. It is this idea, old yet so young, that is carried by those who believe that every child is endowed with reason that must be nurtured.”
On 10 November, Ms Azoulay and Sahle-Work Zewde, the President of Ethiopia, also presented a new prospective report on education, a result of more than two years of work by an independent international commission drawing on contributions from more than one million members of the public alongside the expertise of 400 UNESCO Associated Schools and 200 UNESCO Chairs worldwide. Entitled Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education, the report calls for the reform of curricula and teaching methods to take into account three major recent changes in our societies: those linked to globalization, the climate challenge and the digital revolution. It notably calls for:
• education to be based on human rights and respect for cultural diversity;
• the integration of environmental education in all school programmes;
• teaching of digital tools to instil both the technical mastery and the critical spirit and distance that are necessary for their proper use.
António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, said: “The choice that awaits us is a difficult one. Either we continue on an unsustainable path, or we radically change course. I firmly believe that education is one of our most valuable tools for building a sustainable future. I welcome this UNESCO report as a vital contribution to the discussions that must take place across the UN and around the world. It is a seminal reference for the Transforming Education Summit scheduled for the second half of 2022.”
Watch the highlights of the 2021 Global Education Meeting's high-level segment