Global education in crisis, warns UNESCO

The UN agency says that education must rise to the top of the agenda if the world is to reverse significant, pandemic-related falls in learning and funding

Education around the world is facing twin-pronged trouble, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The agency warns of crises in both learning and budgets, each exacerbated by the pandemic.

As 2,000 delegates from around the world gathered at UNESCO HQ to prepare for September’s education transformation summit, the organisation’s director-general, Audrey Azoulay, called for worldwide cooperation in making education a key priority.

Rather than being on course to achieve the goal of good quality education for all by the end of the decade, warned Azoulay, Covid-related issues had put progress into reverse.

The more the financial burden for education falls on families, the greater the risk of increasing inequality – Stefania Giannini, UNESCO

“School closures have resulted in significant learning losses,” she said. “In low- and middle-income countries, 70% of 10-year-olds are unable to understand simple written text – up from 57% in 2019.

“Without new measures to support them, these young people will face significant difficulties in continuing their education and entering the workforce. We will then face a major social crisis.

“I am calling for mobilisation: education must return to the top of the international community’s agenda if we are to meet the sustainable development goals.”

A joint report by UNESCO, the World Bank and UNICEF warns that these learning delays will have a significant impact on the economy. In 2021, it was estimated that the cumulative loss of wealth for today’s schoolchildren would be more than £14 trillion; today, the prediction stands at nearly £18 trillion.

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The immediate outlook offers little cause for optimism. Another study by UNESCO and the World Bank found that 40% of low- and middle-income countries reduced their education spending during the pandemic, with an average cut of 13.5%. Budgets are yet to return to 2019 levels.

“When public funding decreases, families have to increase their financial contribution,” said Stefania Giannini, assistant director-general for education at UNESCO.

“The more the financial burden for education falls on families, the greater the risk of increasing inequality.”

There is hope, however, says UNESCO, in the fact that more than 150 ministers and deputy ministers – a record number – personally attended the recent gathering at its Paris HQ.

Now, says the UN agency, the speeches signalling a determination to act and collaborate on new initiatives must be turned into constructive, realised proposals at the autumn summit in New York.

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