Put education at the top of global agenda

6th March 2015 at 00:00
We must unite behind teachers in a common goal to educate the 58 million children worldwide who still do not attend school

The crisis in global education is not an issue that fills the nightly news bulletins or daily papers. The startling facts are certainly not as well known as they should be. Despite the United Nations Millennium Development Goal to achieve universal primary education by this year, 58 million children worldwide still do not attend primary school.

Perhaps even more shockingly, of the 650 million children in primary school, 250 million are not learning the basics, according to Unesco. In low-income countries, one in three children is still unable to read after at least four years of school. At the current rate of progress, Unesco estimates, it would take until 2072 to eradicate youth illiteracy.

On top of these systematic failings, education faces a violent new threat. It is under attack, from Boko Haram in Nigeria, Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the sickening Peshawar school massacre left 132 children and 10 school staff dead. Large parts of the world face a backlash from forces that perceive knowledge as a threat. They see that education will give young people - particularly girls - more power and opportunity, which is why they resort to horrific tactics to sabotage it.

Opportunities missed, talents wasted

Investing in giving young people a safe, good-quality education is a moral imperative. But even for the most hard-headed, it makes rational sense. A lack of education can have tragic consequences for individuals - trapping them in poverty and preventing them from improving the lives of their families - and for countries. Less measurable but just as destructive is the soul-sapping sense of opportunities missed and talents wasted. For developing countries, poor education can weaken the growth of their economies and jeopardise the inward investment they need. For companies, poor skills can slow growth and stifle innovation. And for the international community, a lack of education can result in weakened states, with generations of frustrated young people who, lacking opportunities, are more prone to conflict and extremism.

Therefore governments, companies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) all have a stake in tackling the global education crisis. Their efforts are urgently needed to plug the annual funding gap of $26 billion (pound;17 billion) required to achieve basic education for all children in low-income countries.

The amount of international aid earmarked for education in developing countries fell by more than a third between 2009 and 2011. Business also seems relatively uninterested, borne out by the world's first comprehensive study into global corporate spending on education, conducted by my charity, the Varkey Foundation. The study shows that Fortune Global 500 companies spend only $2.6 billion per year - 13 per cent of their total annual corporate social responsibility (CSR) budget of $19.9 billion - on education projects. Less than half of the Global 500 spend any money on education-related CSR at all.

Over the past two decades, the world has rightly mobilised to improve global public health. Enormous efforts are bringing under control such historically devastating illnesses as tuberculosis and polio. According to the UN, the number of children becoming infected by Aids has halved since 2001 as a result of better access to antiretroviral drugs. The number of people dying from malaria has also halved as mosquito nets have been more widely distributed. Hundreds of thousands of lives are saved each year by a coalition of creative philanthropists such as Bill Gates, by national governments increasing their aid pledges and by NGOs delivering preventative healthcare on the ground.

Classroom heroes

It is, of course, right and natural that when faced with images of an ill or hungry child we are moved to act. But the corrosive impact of a lack of education is harder to capture, since its effect on the individual, their family and community is more gradual, which is perhaps why the world has allowed this crisis to go unnoticed. But with political will, it can be solved. If anything, ensuring that all children have a good education should be easier to tackle than global health. There is no need to discover a miracle drug. And we already know the most important factor in a good education, whether in rural Uganda or inner-city US: well-educated, well-trained and well-respected teachers.

Government ministers must prioritise education and, in particular, teacher training in developing countries. I urge business leaders to look at how they can utilise their resources to educate and train young people, not just in their own countries but also in the emerging markets. I urge technology leaders to make the case for their innovative solutions, from online learning to interactive distance learning. I urge NGOs to keep the pressure on governments, business and civil society to deliver good-quality education for all.

Over and above this, we need to find ways of collectively celebrating teachers, of saying to a celebrity-obsessed world that teachers are important and worthy of respect. That is why last year the Varkey Foundation launched the $1 million Global Teacher Prize. By unearthing thousands of stories of classroom heroes, the prize brings to life the exceptional work of millions of teachers all over the world.

Education must be front and centre in the post-2015 development agenda, which is being discussed right now. Time is running out for a generation that could, with a good education, contribute so much.

Sunny Varkey is founder of the Varkey Foundation

Global gathering

Our sister magazine TES is media partner for the Global Education and Skills Forum, organised by the Varkey Foundation, which this year takes place in Dubai on 15-16 March. It is one of the world's leading education conferences, where teachers, school leaders, educationalists, charities, non-governmental organisations and ministers from across the globe come together to discuss education everywhere from Britain to Bangladesh.

The TES editorial team will bring you all the news, comment, audio and video as it happens at www.tesconnect.comgesf

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