What does it mean to be literate in the 21st century?

We need large-scale systemic revolution in education.

Afghan volunteers of Pen Path Civil Society hold placards during an educational awareness campaign in Kandahar, Afghanistan [EPA]
Afghan volunteers of Pen Path Civil Society hold placards during an educational awareness campaign in Kandahar, Afghanistan [EPA]

Around the world, education systems are in crisis. Progress has been made to increase access to at least a basic education over the past several decades, but not nearly fast enough. At the current pace the last impoverished girl will not even have access to a classroom until 2086.

More than 260 million children and adolescents remain out of school, and it is estimated that at least 250 million more are in school but not learning. The challenge of getting all children in school and learning is immense.

To address this, world leaders committed in 2016 to “ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes” by 2030 in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

But what is quality learning in increasingly connected and rapidly evolving information and technology-dominated economy? What is it that children need to be learning now to be literate and ready for the jobs of the future, and how do we build systems designed to deliver this?

Diminishing funding

First, we must stop undermining the systems we have. This starts with financing. At a global level the retreat of financing for education, particularly in the poorest settings over the past decade, has been staggering. Perhaps most notably, rich country donors underfunded the Global Partnership for Education – which focuses on the poorest and most vulnerable children and youth in developing countries – by more than $1bn in 2014. Since 2010, 13 African countries have had their basic education aid cut, some drastically.

While politicians from rich countries lament a global “skills gap”, they wave away criticisms of reductions in aid to education, citing overall shrinking aid budgets. However, since 2008 donor investments in health have risen 58 percent, while investments in education, critical for sustaining health outcomes, have dropped nearly 20 percent.

Many countries have not done much better, failing to invest in their own education systems for the long term – creating space for unregulated predatory for-profit schools that take advantage of parents who know that education is critical for their child’s future but are unable to evaluate what they are paying for. It’s unbearably myopic not to believe that there is a strong link between declining funding and quality learning.

The answer to preparing the world for change of this magnitude isn't small-scale innovation classroom by classroom. It's a well-financed systemic revolution prioritising building strong national systems with well-trained and compensated teachers.

The dominant narrative instead is around the need for greater efficiency, innovation and STEM (science technology, engineering and mathematics) education. The need for these things is real and urgent, but this narrative largely misses the wider imperatives on which efficiency, innovation and learning all subjects are built. The need to 1) start early; 2) invest in teachers and; 3) stop tinkering around the edges with small-scale policy “fixes” and short cuts which let us off the hook for system-wide public education investment.  

Starting as early as birth, long before children enter primary school, is essential. A child’s brain is 80 percent developed by the age of three, yet quality care and stimulation for these children is often poorly understood and completely unfunded in most settings. Pre-primary education, an opportunity to learn through play, sets up children with far greater social, cognitive and emotional development opportunities, enabling them to more easily adapt later to changes needed in their skillset.

Reaching children early with play and learning helps them learn to think and adapt, not just memorise their lessons. A 2016 Lancet series on early childhood development provides ample evidence from brain science and economics to enumerate how “a good start in life will ensure a sustainable future for all”. Yet, pre-primary education is often first on the chopping block for budget cuts and last in line for scaling-up.

Small-scale projects are not the answer

For quality education at every level, the most important ingredient is quality teachers. We know this from our individual experience and from the places where the most exciting innovation is happening. Where teachers have the training, freedom, and support to innovate and adapt not only to the needs of individual students but to the changing needs of employers, amazing things are happening.

These educators are often called “rebels” primarily because there are very simply not enough of them. Despite considerable and growing demands on teachers to be subject experts as well as role models, protectors, counsellors and mentors, teacher salaries around the world are low and in the poorest contexts teachers can go unpaid for months at a time. More than 43 countries do not even have enough teachers to reach the 2030 education goal and nearly 69 million new teachers need to be recruited to meet the SDGs.

But ultimately both the imperative to start early and the need for more and better supported teachers leads back to the need for far greater investments. Last year the Education Commission released a report calling for an increase in international financing for education of $44bn annually as a key response to the fact that 50 percent of the world’s jobs – approximately two billion – are likely to be eliminated by automation by 2030.

In some countries job loss could be as much as 80 percent. Globally, 40 percent of employers already report difficulty recruiting people with the right skills. The answer to preparing the world for change of this magnitude isn’t small-scale innovation classroom by classroom. It’s a well-financed systemic revolution prioritising building strong national systems with well-trained and compensated teachers.

Education is a human right because individuals and communities depend on it to build their lives. But more importantly, as the Education Commission clearly articulates, getting this right has severe implications for global stability. There is not only a direct correlation between the quality of education systems and our ability to fill the jobs of tomorrow – our ability to be truly literate for the 21st century – there is a direct correlation between equality in access to education and the risk of conflict.

“When educational inequality doubles, the probability of conflict more than doubles.” This means that we cannot do better on a small scale for some, we have to do better on a large scale for all.

Kolleen Bouchane is a poverty and development policy and advocacy expert and Board President of the Global Campaign for Education United States Chapter.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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