30 August 2023
Transforming Education to Transform the World
Photo Credit: ©FAO/Telcínia dos Santos
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In his policy brief titled, ‘Transforming Education,’ Guterres paints an ambitious vision for education and proposes a set of guiding actions for countries and the international community to take in order to “overhaul[] how we learn, what we learn, when we learn and where we learn”.

Without targeted actions to address COVID-19 learning losses, education transformation risks leaving an entire generation behind.

By Elena Kosolapova, Senior Policy Advisor, IISD Tracking Progress, and SDG Hub Content Editor

“Education is a fundamental human right and the bedrock of societies, economies, and every person’s potential.” This was the message UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued to mark the International Day of Education earlier this year. Placed firmly at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, education and lifelong learning are essential preconditions for sustainable development, prosperity, and global stability.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit education hard around the world. Estimates suggest that since 2020, some 147 million students missed more than half of in-person instruction. With half of all countries cutting their education budgets, more than 90% of the world’s children suffered setbacks in their education since the beginning of the pandemic.

To make matters worse, according to the Secretary-General, “education as we know it is no longer fit for purpose.” In his Our Common Agenda (OCA) policy brief titled, ‘Transforming Education,’ Guterres paints an ambitious vision for education and proposes a set of guiding actions for countries and the international community to take in order to “overhaul[] how we learn, what we learn, when we learn and where we learn.”

Drawing on the outcomes of the 2022 Transforming Education Summit and the report of the International Commission on the Futures of Education, the policy brief seeks to support Member States in their preparations for the Summit of the Future in September 2024, which is expected to “agree on multilateral solutions for a better tomorrow,” to be reflected in A Pact for the Future. It was developed taking into account Member States’ guidance and intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder consultations.

The publication is the tenth of 11 policy briefs that offer “concrete ideas” to advance work on Our Common Agenda. The other briefs cover: 1) the needs of future generations; 2) improving the international response to complex global shocks through an emergency platform; 3) more systematic participation by young people in decision-making processes; 4) metrics that go beyond gross domestic product (GDP); 5) global digital cooperation on maximizing and sharing the benefits of digital technology through a global digital compact; 6) reform of the global financial architecture; 7) the peaceful, secure, and sustainable use of outer space; 8) a New Agenda for Peace; 9) information integrity; and 10) strengthening the capacities of the UN for the 21st century by building a ‘UN 2.0.’

Supporting sustainable development through education

Transforming education, the policy brief argues, contributes to sustainable development as it is “critical for empowering individuals and societies to be active agents in the pursuit of social, economic and environmental justice.” It highlights education as an effective tool for empowering women and girls and promoting gender equality, for building and sustaining peace and security, and for predicting, preventing, and managing future risks.

Education in crisis

However, plagued by the crises of equity and relevance, education finds itself at a crossroads, the policy brief contends. Today, it notes, 244 million children are out of school, and many who are in school are not receiving the foundational literacy and numeracy skills. Gaps in access to high-quality education and education financing gaps are hitting the most vulnerable groups in low- and middle- income countries (LMICs) hardest.

In addition to these inequities, the policy brief “calls into question the ability of contemporary education systems to respond to the [current] learning needs of individuals, societies and economies.” It highlights a rapidly changing world of work, the digital age and the pace of developments in generative artificial intelligence (AI), the global climate crisis, and increased polarization and division in society as contributing factors to a crisis of relevance.

Way forward

To counter these crises and transform education, the Secretary-General puts forward two overarching recommendations. First, he calls on countries to deliver on the commitments made in the 2030 Agenda and at the 2022 Transforming Education Summit and to further commit to a new vision for the creation of learning societies based on six principles:

  • Building an integrated system of education and lifelong learning in a world of uncertainty;
  • Ensuring equity, access, and inclusion in and through education;
  • Making curricula and pedagogies relevant for today and tomorrow;
  • Repositioning the teaching profession to ensure that teachers increasingly serve as creative guides and facilitators in the learning process;
  • Harnessing digital tools and resources to expand access, improve learning, and increase capacities to navigate the future and avoid the digital divide; and
  • Investing more, more equitably, and more efficiently in education.

Second, the Secretary-General calls for recognizing education and lifelong learning as “a global public good” and galvanizing international cooperation to invest in and transform education while achieving SDG 4 (quality education).

What is missing

When SDG 4 underwent in-depth review by the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) in 2022, it became clear that the pandemic had dealt education a lasting blow. Yet, the Secretary-General’s recommendations stop short of proposing targeted actions to address COVID-19 learning losses that the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has assessed as “nearly insurmountable.” Without guidance to drive concrete commitments in that area, education transformation risks leaving an entire generation behind.

* * *

In preparation for the 2023 SDG Summit and the Summit of the Future in 2024, the UN Secretary-General is launching eleven policy briefs between March and July 2023, offering “concrete ideas” on how to advance Our Common Agenda. Timed accordingly, the SDG Knowledge Hub is publishing a series of policy briefs of its own, offering insights on the issue areas covered in these publications.

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