UN General Assembly: leaders to unite to tackle ‘global learning crisis’

Indian students study in a makeshift school running under a metro bridge in New Delhi, India, 21 January 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the education system in India, with scores of children from poor areas and remote regions across the country moving online dropping out of school entirely.(Credit: Keystone/EPA)

Millions missed out on education during the pandemic. But the global learning crisis existed long before the Covid outbreak  and now needs to be addressed more urgently than ever, UNESCO, UNICEF and other agencies warned ahead of a Transforming Education summit taking place this weekend in New York under the auspices of the UN General Assembly. 

September marked the beginning of a new school year for many countries around the globe but inequalities in access to education, exacerbated by Covid, armed conflicts and other humanitarian crises, are still keeping some 244 million children out of school, according to UNESCO.

In a joint report released this week ahead of a summit being held at the General Assembly, the United Nations’s cultural agency warned that countries are still responding too slowly to a “global learning crisis” that emerged long before the Covid pandemic brought more disruption to the classroom.

“We are very, very concerned by the increased numbers of children out of school, and the gap between the expectations of where children are supposed to be in their learning and where indeed they are,” Robert Jenkins, education director at UNICEF, which collaborated on the report, told journalists in Geneva.

The report, the fourth in a series of surveys, assessed national education responses to Covid school closures of over 90 countries between April and July 2022, when almost all schools had reopened.

The findings showed at least half of countries had taken measures at primary and secondary levels to return children to school, such as providing cash transfers for families facing economic hardships, automatic re-enrolment and community mobilisation campaigns to address disengagement from school.

But efforts to address learning lost by children during Covid were still lacking, with fewer than half of countries conducting studies on the impact of the school closures on learning outcomes.

Closing the education financing gap

Jenkins said financing being allocated by countries to rebuild their education systems was also critical. “We are very concerned – and the report analyses this – by the number of countries that are either keeping their education levels of financing the same or decreasing (them) at this challenging time,” he said at the briefing organised by the association of UN-accredited correspondents (ACANU).

Although most countries increased their education budgets in 2021 compared with 2020, the report reveals major differences between countries. Over 90 per cent of high income countries increased their spending for primary to upper secondary education compared with just 45 per cent of low and middle income countries, in a further sign of widening inequalities exacerbated by Covid.

“The vast majority of financing for public education comes from national governments. So we are engaging with governments around the world to encourage them to protect education resources, increase public resources, particularly focused on marginalised children, but also working with donors, philanthropists and the private sector to crowd in additional investment at this time, Jenkins added.

UN calls for new national commitments

The Transforming Education Summit, held over three days from 17-19 September, will aim to rally world leaders to make renewed national commitments to overhauling their education systems and meeting the UN’s 2030 Agenda of making education accessible to all.

“In theory, the national commitments that would be delivered by the heads of states will be based on the outcomes of the national consultations that took place over the last four months,” said Maki Katsuno-Hayashikawa, executive secretary of the summit secretariat at UNESCO.

With Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral also taking place on Monday, there are worries, however that less heads of state will attending the so-called Leaders Day when commitments will be announced, she said, potentially diluting outcomes of the summit.

Key areas of focus at the three-day summit include strengthening key skills such as reading and writing, or what’s called foundational learning, financing, digitalising education, and creating inclusive, safe and healthy schools.

“One of the highlights is really an intergenerational dialogue with the UN secretary general himself and a group of young people,” Katsuno-Hayashikawa said. “There we’ll be bringing the youth declaration to transform education, which global youth group has been putting together since the pre-summit which took place in June.”

Education is ‘falling through the cracks’

The summit is supported by Switzerland, which will be co-hosting a high-level financing conference in February 2023 for UN’s Global Fund for Education in Emergencies, Education Cannot Wait.

Ambassador Manuel Bessler, head of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid department at the Swiss Development Cooperation, said in regions across the world struggling with a combination of interrelated crises like in the Horn of Africa where he has just returned from a visit, “education is the first thing that falls through the cracks”.

The humanitarian sector is often guilty of “forgetting to take care of education” when responding to other more immediate emergency needs, Bessler added.  “Of course, food and shelter are important, but you have to think more long term.”

In times of crisis, education is still being left behind, Jenkins said, noting that only three per cent of Covid-19 response humanitarian funding was used for education.

“I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for children to be able to continue to learn … yet, countries, governments, global donors and others do not sufficiently prioritise funding. It’s incredibly frustrating,” he said, adding he hoped the summit would be a chance to change the status quo.