Leaders promise at UN to transform education amid unprecedented crisis

By Mario Villar

United Nations, Sep 19 (EFE).- Governments from all over the world promised on Monday at the United Nations to take measures to transform education and respond to an unprecedented crisis in that sector, the result of problems that began years ago and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Called to meet by the UN, dozens of international leaders gathered in New York to discuss education at a summit held on the eve of the start of the General Assembly session, although the conclave was somewhat tarnished since it coincided with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in London, which drew a large number of leaders and made their presence at the international body’s headquarters impossible.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the organizer of the education summit, said that governments would not be able to bring the education crisis to an end without doing more quicker and better, adding that “now is the time” to transform educational systems.

According to the UN, the pandemic has had a “devastating” impact on learning and teaching, but the educational crisis goes much deeper than that.

Educational systems are not measuring up, said Guterres, noting that they are “failing” students and societies, the study plans are obsolete and limited, teachers do not have the required training, they are undervalued and badly paid, not to mention the fact that the digital gap penalizes poorer students.

Given this situation, the UN identified priorities that include ensuring that all children have access to schools, that teaching is improved, that violence and intimidation in the classrooms is combatted, that online teaching is improved and, above all, that the appropriate investments are made to accomplish these things.

Financing education must be governments’ “number one priority,” said Guterres, noting that it’s the “best investment” a country can make in its people and its future.

According to the international body, more than 90 percent of the world’s children saw their learning interrupted by the pandemic, a period during which education budgets were also cut significantly and there was a clear deterioration in the learning levels of students at the close of the school year.

Today, the UN estimates that more than 64 percent of 10-year-old children are not able to read and understand a simple text, when before the health crisis that percentage was about 50 percent.

The leaders who spoke at the summit on Monday emphasized repeatedly the need to make up the learning time lost during the pandemic, a problem that is especially serious in Latin American and South Asia, regions where schools were closed longer.

In that regard, Peruvian President Pedro Castillo acknowledged that Covid-19 had caused “one of the biggest educational crises in history” and emphasized how his country has gotten all students back to in-person classes and is investing in human capital to improve the overall quality of the school system.

Besides the short-term problems, the UN wants the summit to be the start of designing the education of the future and, to do that, he emphasized that 130 countries have presented ideas and commitments, which will be compiled into a document that can serve as a guide or roadmap to improving education worldwide.

One of the things that most concerns the international organization is the fact that education, which was seen as a source of opportunities for disadvantaged kids, today is becoming a source of greater inequality.

The rich have access to better resources, schools and universities, which leads to better jobs, while the poor, above all poor girls, are encountering enormous obstacles, Guterres said.

Some of the leaders took advantage of the gathering to explain their own projects in the educational sector, including Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who spoke about how he wants to use education to change the distribution of power and combat inequalities, but also to help strengthen peace, democratize Colombia’s culture and change the country’s productive model.

Among the many questions discussed at the summit, the desperate cry for help from Afghan girls stood out, given that they have been excluded from education beyond elementary school for the past year after the Taliban retook power in the Central Asian nation.

“We’ve seen ourselves forced to put our dreams on hold,” said Somaya Faruqi, a young activist who said that Afghan girls feel “abandoned” and demanded that the international community exert more pressure on Kabul to remedy the situation.

Also speaking on this issue was Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who in 2012 survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in Pakistan for defending the right to education and had harsh words over the inaction of other governments, asking “How many more generations are you willing to sacrifice?”

EFE mvs/fjo/bp

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