Learning heroes, innovations and financing at the forefront of International Day of Education 2021

“We must make education a priority in recovery plans,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay in a video message as she opened and set the tone of the virtual conference organized for the third International Day of Education on 25 January under the theme ‘Recover and Revitalize Education for the COVID-19 Generation’. “We are celebrating this International Day of Education in an exceptional situation: the greatest disruption in history to the lives of students, teachers and the entire educational community,” she said.

The global event was organized in partnership with the UNESCO New York Office, UNHQ, the Global Partnership for Education and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies (CRI), as well as partners from the Global Education Coalition.

“We are here to celebrate and alert,” stated UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education Stefania Giannini. “Education is under threat. Two thirds of the global student population are still affected by full or partial school closures.”

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, over 800 million students, more than half the world’s student population, still face significant disruptions to their education, ranging from full school closures in 31 countries to reduced or part-time academic schedules in another 48 countries, according to new UNESCO data.

The learning crisis was echoed and highlighted by the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres who sent a video message for the conference. “When education is interrupted, it affects everyone, and especially students, teachers and families,” he said. “[The pandemic] has dashed hopes of a brighter future among vulnerable populations […] Education is the foundation for expanding opportunities, transforming economies, fighting intolerance, protecting the planet and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Stressing the urgency to address social and economic inequalities, H.E.Volkan Bozkir, President of the 75th UN General Assembly outlined recovery priorities for education. “Let me be clear: SDG 4 is not just about a classroom – it is about Society,” he stated. “Education has the power to break the cycle of poverty and conflict. […] Education can also build media and information literacy, producing global citizens who are better able to engage critically in the world.”

H.E. Ambassador Odd-Inge Kvalheim, Deputy Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations, and Chair of the Group of Friends for Education and Lifelong Learning honoured the role of teachers throughout this crisis. “We commemorate the tireless efforts of teachers, school administrators, government officials and other dedicated individuals who have made possible that children and youth continued to learn even against the largest disruption of our education systems due to COVID-19 pandemic.”

H.E. Ambassador Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations called on all education stakeholders to put education at the centre of their response and recovery for COVID-19. “The notion of leaving no one behind should start with education as the greatest investment for society and the most effective equalizer”, he stated.

Meet the ‘learning heroes’

‘Learning heroes’ from around the world shared their experiences on how they’ve been able to ensure the continuity of education under difficult circumstances during COVID-19 school closures.

Christopher Oule, a blind activist from Burkina Faso talked about his efforts in making education available for visually impaired learners by scanning textbooks and making them accessible to students in his country.

Marla Yolibet Vasquez, a teacher from Honduras explained how she was determined to make sure that children received adequate meals at home during school closures, with support from the World Food Programme, together with learning resources. “For some children, their only meals were the ones provided by their schools,” she said.

Dhurata Myrtollari, a teacher from Albania who supported the broadcasting of classes on national television, said: “Teachers must be trained and equipped with digital skills to best respond to students’ needs everywhere.”

Jamie Frost, winner of the Varey Foundation’s COVID-19 hero award and creator of a maths learning platform, emphasized the role of technology in education and its continuity. “While technology can’t replace teachers and classroom teaching, it can cover and make learning possible,” he said.

Ece Akcay from the Ministry of National Education of Turkey, a country hosting the largest refugee population in the world, explained initiatives to prevent learning losses, including the provision of “learn at home kits”, storybooks and hygiene needs, with support from UNICEF.

Allan Goodman, President of the Institute of International Education highlighted the challenging financial situation that foreign students faced around the world during lockdowns and the lessons learned to better face such an emergency in the future, but was convinced that “after every pandemic, the surge of international student mobility quickly resumes.”

Innovation key to transforming education

The pandemic has amplified social, economic and digital inequalities. But there have also been countless inspiring stories of innovation from around the world that have made it possible for learners to access education in various circumstances.

Emphasizing a national focus on equity, H.E. Maria Victoria Angulo Gonzalez, Minister of Education of Colombia described the use of various platforms from internet to mobile phones to ensure learning continuity, together with home food programmes and economic support to families. The challenge now is to reactivate education systems and identify learning gaps, with blended modalities as an intermediate solution.

Bringing in the private sector’s voice from the Global Education Coalition, Oleg Figlin, Blackboard’s Vice-President for Europe, Middle East and Africa, described collaboration to scale up digital education for teachers in the Caribbean, with attention to grooming trainer of trainers, developing course materials and communities of practice. “Blended learning is not an option, it’s a must,” he stated.

Ranjitsinh Disale, winner of the Global Teacher Prize, saw a positive shift in teachers’ take-up of technology. “When you conduct online classes, you can’t go the traditional way of teaching. You need more project-based learning,” he said, also emphasizing the need to develop creativity and critical thinking skills, and “to make sure that every student is learning”.

Otto Arindam, Founder of Slum2School in Nigeria shared his story of how he is harnessing connectivity to bring learning to children in vulnerable situations. “It was important for us to ensure that children were still learning: We were able to connect over 1000 students across the continent,” he said. “Learning doesn’t need to happen only in classroom. We want to scale our remote learning programmes and expand connectivity.”

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau of International Telecommunication Union presented “Giga”, a joint ITU and UNICEF initiative that aims to connect every school to the internet. “We’ve already mapped over 800 000 schools worldwide,” she said.

More financing needed now more than ever

The need for adequately financed recovery packages for education was underlined by many of the participants of this segment of the conference.

In a video message, Jutta Urpilainen, the EU Commissioner for Partnerships stated: “Education is the most powerful tool to build back better. It is crucial for the future of all children. That’s why I’ve decided to increase the education budget from 7% to 10%.”

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, African Union’s Goodwill Ambassador on Ending Child Marriage and Chief Executive of Rozaria Memorial Trust stressed that governments around the world needed to take bold decisions to make sure that learning never stops for students. “We need daring, bold and courageous financing right now,” she said. “Debt cancelation is key for countries to be able to continue to spend more on education.”

“Governments must commit to making significance investment in education,” said Alice Albright, CEO of the Global Partnership for Education. “GPE has put itself in a position to help countries respond to what is perhaps the worst crisis that the education sector has faced in the modern age.”

Manos Antoninis, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report underlined the findings of a new policy paper showing that, even before the COVID-19 crisis, only 1 in 5 countries demonstrated a strong commitment to equity in education through their financing mechanisms. Over 80 country profiles were compiled detailing countries’ financing policies and programmes to inform the new GEM Report policy paper.

Refaat Sabbah, President, Global Campaign for Education talked about the role that organizations and individuals can play to protect the right to education. “We must not only prevent rollbacks of education financing, but we must be pushing for more and better financing for education to make sure that progress towards achieving SDG4 is back on track. The “One Billion voices” campaign is a chance for everyone to stand together and call for urgent action for education.”

Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait explained the need go into the education crisis and the countries affected by it, to fully understand what the situation is like on the ground.” She mentioned the profit generated by the world’s wealthiest individuals during the pandemic and affirmed that “we need to look at new donors” and “make sure that the children left behind can get benefit from quality education.”

Jaime Saavedra, Director of Global Education at the World Bank said in a video message: “We need to use the window of opportunity that this pandemic opens not only to build back but to build forward and more effective, equitable and resilient education.”


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