This week, Theodore Agnew, the UK's parliamentary under secretary of state for the school system, joined the G20’s discussions in Mendoza, Argentina. This is the first time in the near two-decade history of the G20 that education ministers have met to discuss global education trends and policy challenges.
The fact that, under Argentina’s presidency, education ministers had a place at the table for the first time is deeply significant. It is an overdue recognition that matters of economic growth, trade and development are inseparable from education.
For the first time ever, a group of leading education-focused civil society organisations (CSOs) from around the world also convened on the fringe of the G20, meeting ministers as well the president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, to discuss how to solve the world’s deepening education problems. This group presented the G20 ministers with four papers on how to create a highly motivated and professional teaching force; issues around education, equity and inclusion; how to match the future labour market with the right youth skills; and how education, young people and social media interact.
Education ministers that attended the meeting will have had no air of triumphalism. They will be acutely aware that despite a blizzard of summit communiques, soaring rhetoric and ambitious promises, there is a deep global education crisis that among many other pressing demands often finds itself too far down the in-tray of the world’s governments.
In many developing economies, teachers and facilities are lacking – and even where they are provided, pupils are not gaining the skills they will need for the future. The damning statistics should be burnt into our consciousness. It is a scandal that in 2018, more than 260 million children are out of school globally, and of the 650 million primary school-age children in school, 250 million are not learning the basics. In order to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of quality education for all, we will need to recruit 69 million teachers by 2030.
That education ministers have met to address these problems is a vital first step. However, equally important is another group that is too often missing from global economic discussions: the independent civil society organisations that devote their work to education. It’s time for governments to accept that to solve the global education crisis, they need to take notice of the views of civil society organisations.
The institutional knowledge of CSOs, often acquired over decades and combined with extensive on-the-ground experience, means they have insights that could be of huge benefit to ministers. While ministers have to work on short electoral cycles, and often barely have time to make an impact before they are moved to other jobs, civil society groups can build specialist expertise year-on-year, decade-on-decade.
This week’s meeting of the CSOs provided a more concrete way of pushing recommendations to the fore and proposing solutions to the global challenges of education head-on. The group includes organisations from Plan International Canada – which is training teachers and bringing schools, resource centres, and libraries to children in Africa, some of whom have never even held a book before – to Dubai Cares – which is working to improve children's access to quality primary education in developing countries.
Other organisations involved include BRAC, Camfed, Club de Madrid, Education International, Forum for African Women Educationalists, Global Campaign for Education, the Harvard School of Education, ICRC, Achievement International, Lemann Foundation, the National Institute of Education of Singapore, and the UCL Institute of Education – CSOs that have spent decades at the coalface tackling the world’s greatest educational challenges.
They were joined by the Varkey Foundation’s Atlantis Group of former ministers of education and former heads of government across the world, who shared with them their experiences of tackling these same challenges from within the corridors of power. Such wisdom proved crucial when the group of CSOs met with the G20 nations’ education ministers in person and called for governments to take action on their recommendations.
The UK has a strong track record of engaging civil society in education, which is why we are positive that Lord Agnew will be open to hearing this new perspective in the debate. In terms of donations to education worldwide, the UK is the third-largest country after Germany and the United States – and second-largest if international student scholarship costs are excluded from the figure. In 2016, the UK spent $1.6 billion on education official development assistance, representing an increase of 32 per cent on the previous year; the government’s priorities are to use this to promote girls’ education and help 11 million children in poorer countries get a good education.
As the chairs of the group of CSOs that convened in Mendoza, we look forward to seeing the next steps after the meeting of G20 education ministers. However, such meetings of education ministers should not be a once-a-decade occurrence: they should be a permanent fixture at the G20 and G7 every year. Next year, the presidencies of the G20 and G7 fall to Japan and France respectively: it would be welcome to see this format of discussion with education ministers continue.
Regardless of whether this happens, as governments debate what action is needed, it is increasingly the ideas of civil society groups that are showing how the global education crisis can be fixed. We must heed their call for action; the interconnected world we live in means that it is not just other countries’ future at stake – it is ours as well.
Esteban Bullrich is a senator representing Buenos Aires and former Argentinian minister for education, and Vikas Pota is the chairman of the Varkey Foundation. They are the co-chairs of a new group of civil society organisations meeting alongside the G20 Education Ministers summit in Mendoza, Argentina