Life is lush as education's have-nots ask awkward questions of the wealthy

20th November 2009 at 00:00
Michael Shaw reports from the world education summit in Qatar

The first world summit of its kind on education saw British educators share their latest high-tech innovations, though some faced awkward questions from teachers in poorer countries.

More than 1,000 teachers, academics and policy-makers from across the globe were invited to the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha this week. There they were put up in five star hotels, and treated to video messages from Tony Blair and Kofi Annan, speeches by such luminaries as the co-founder of Twitter and the former German chancellor Gerhard Schroder and a smile from the French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

The scale of the event's ambition was summed up by Mike Baker, former BBC education correspondent, who hosted part of it."We have a world economic forum at Davos, and we have a world environment forum, but until now we haven't had a global education forum. I think that's long overdue".

The lavish summit was organised by the Qatar Foundation, established by the Qatari royal family, and consisted of a series of seminars on the broad topics of innovation, sustainability and pluralism.

Britainwas represented with several speakers from the school and higher education sector. But the UK speeches, like those from the US and other richer countries, sometimes provoked frustrated responses from African and Asian delegates.

Stephen Moss, strategic director of Partnership for Schools, which oversees Building Schools for the Future, presented slides on the multi-billion pound secondary school rebuilding taking place in Britain. Afterwards he was challenged by a representative of Pakistan's Citizens Foundation, who suggested that rebuilding seemed a luxury in his country, where tens of millions of children did not have a school at all.

Professor Daizal Samad, director of Guyana University, was more scathing. He had heard a lot of "lofty talk about connectivity and IT" from the British and US delegates that was unhelpful for a country like Guyana where not a single primary school he had visited had a computer. Comparing schools in the richer Western countries and those in the developing world was, he said, "not about apples and oranges - they are both fruit - it's like comparing apples and antelopes".

On the back foot, Mr Moss admitted that the amount the UK was spending on school buildings was a "rather embarrassingly large amount of capital".

Representatives from some other British institutions were better received - particularly Sugata Mitra, professor of education at Newcastle University, who described the groundbreaking work he has been doing getting pupils in India and Gateshead to teach themselves using computers.

But an underlying tension still existed through much of the summit over the disparity in schools' resources.

Why, a few delegates asked, could certain governments find billions to bail out banks and fight a war in Afghanistan, but not deal with the critical education problems in the developing world?

Kiyotaka Akasaka, UN under-secretary general, noted that "for the cost of an additional soldier in Afghanistan for a year, 20 schools could be built." He added that meeting Unesco's Education for All goals for 2015 - which include providing free, compulsory primary education for every child in the world - would be "a daunting task that requires greater urgency and determination".

The event's patron, Qatari royal Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, was more outspoken about the 2015 goals, warning that they "remain on the shelf" and risked "a coma or clinical death". "We fear that the goals will be discarded if we do not act decisively and quickly to resuscitate them," she said.

The summit was part of Qatar's drive to buy its place as a world leader in education, having already established an "education city" which has attracted branches of US Ivy league universities. Organisers would not reveal how many millions of pounds the summit had cost, but the fact it was advertised on CNN and in Time magazine weeks after all the delegates had been invited suggests status-seeking may have been among the motives.

A declaration of principles formulated at the end of the summit was predictably vague. But most who attended seemed keen to return if, as announced on Monday, the summit becomes annual, several saying they believed the debates would grow more focussed in future years.

Tom Barrett, assistant head at Priestsic Primary in Nottinghamshire and a prolific blogger, was invited because of his work using technology such as instant messaging in the classroom

"The global aspect of this event felt unprecedented - I was imagining what the rooms would look like if everyone had a flag on their head," he said. "But while I know I'm going to go back to classroom, enthused, and am going to be talking to the kids about globalisation, it's hard to tell yet what scale of change we're going to see."

The wisdom of WISE

"Education reform is like a Russian novel - long with lots of wars and brawling, and everyone ends up dead."

  • Robert Hughes, president of New Visions Public Schools, New York City, quoting a colleague
    • "We have to do as grandmothers have done - admire [children's] learning and say `That's very nice'."

      • Professor Sugata Mitra of Newcastle University, arguing for school teachers to act as mediators.
        • "The health issue in the United States shows that the private sector doesn't always do good things."

          • Professor Sheika Abdulla Al-Misnad of Qatar, on whether schools need more private sector involvement.
            • "What our children are doing online today determines the function and form and community of our schools in 50 years time."

              • Professor Stephen Heppell, of Bournemouth University
                • "All species learn by play - we have to give in to emergent behaviour, watch it as it unfolds, and then apply some structure."

                  • Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter
                    • "We can no longer afford the situation where a good education is conditional on parents' income.For me it is crystal clear that education has to be a public good."

                      • Gerhard Schroder, former chancellor of Germany
                        • "Education is key in building a culture of peace instead of a culture of despair for our present and future generations."


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