More students are in school. But it is not enough| Analysis – analysis
By its resolution of December, 2018, the General Assembly (UNGA) invited “all Member States, organizations of the United Nations system, other international and regional organizations and civil society organizations”, among others, to observe January 24 of every year as the International Day of Education (IDE). As today marks the second anniversary of this major landmark, it is pertinent to ask whether there is anything worth celebrating in the field of education.
The rising school enrolment rates worldwide is cause for celebration. More children are going to, and staying in, school. This roughly translates into high literacy rates. Specifically, the literacy rate for all males and females who are at least 15-years-old is 86.3%. The literacy rate for males aged 15 and over is 90% worldwide, and for females, 82.7%.
But the education sector is wrestling with mammoth challenges. Among these are the precipitate decline in the quality and standards of education, the failure to factor skills and requirements for workplaces into learning processes, the widening knowledge gap between students in technically-advanced societies and their counterparts in developing countries, the danger and the obstacles that learning faces in conflict zones, the growing incidence of bullying in schools, and the declining esteem of the teaching profession.
The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) underscore the magnitude of the learning crisis. According to the survey of learning outcomes in the participating countries, over 10 million students were not able to complete even the most basic reading tasks, and those struggling with basic reading were 15-year-old children in 79 high and middle-income countries.
The OECD study also highlights the link between socioeconomic advantage and learning outcomes. According to the study, “the 10% most socio-economically advantaged students outperformed their 10% most disadvantaged counterparts in reading by 141 score points, on average across OECD countries.”
The significance of the deficits in education outcome becomes obvious when viewed alongside the spiralling population crisis. Estimates by the Global Coalition for Business Education suggest that by 2030, there will be 1.5 billion school-age children in low and middle-income countries. If the trend continues, over 50% — 880 million children — will not have the skills they need to be productive members of society. Countries with rapidly growing youth populations will not be on track to acquire the skills they need to succeed in the workplace of 2030.
Exacerbating the mismatch between school curricular and workplace demands are the other deficits which education has not adequately bridged.Among these are social skills gaps, meaning, the gaps in interpersonal and intercultural relations proficiency. The cause of peace cannot be served until humans realise that they are obliged to coexist with one another. Yet, education for global citizenship is still at a rudimentary stage.
We have thus far focused on education in relatively normal environments. The fate of school children trapped in conflict zones is deserving of even more urgent attention. According to Unicef, 500 attacks were staged on schools in 20 countries worldwide in 2017. In 15 of the 20 countries, troops and rebel forces virtually commandeered schools and turned them into military posts. Thousands of children were recruited into fighting forces, made to serve as suicide bombers, or forced to endure direct attacks.
Natural disasters pose additional threats. Cyclones, hurricanes, and storms periodically wreak havoc on school buildings and facilities, making learning difficult, if not impossible.
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. Nearly two-thirds of all the illiterate adults in the world are female, a majority of whom are in underdeveloped countries.
Choice also becomes critical as the education sector struggles with how to elevate the status of the teaching profession, recruit competent teachers, and expose teachers to innovative teaching techniques.
Inclusive quality education in the vision for the 74th Session of the UNGA, in collaboration with other partners, and the theme for this year’s IDE is “Aligning Inclusive Quality Education Policies with Sustainable Development Goals”. Forward-looking education policies have contributed to the attainment of sustainable development goals targets in some countries. The high-level interactive sessions will enable participants at this year’s IDE to share international good practices in inclusive quality education.
Tijjani Muhammad-Bande is president, UNGA
The views expressed are personal