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INTERVIEW – Reworking Training and Averting a International Studying Disaster |

Many education experts are concerned that the Covid-19 pandemic is having an incalculable impact on children’s educational opportunities around the world, compounding already existing problems of declining standards, with millions of children receiving minimal, inadequate or no education.

In the days leading up to the Education Transformation Summit UN news met Leonardo Garnier, academician and former Minister of Education of Costa Rica who has been appointed by the UN Secretary-General as Special Advisor to the Summit.

He explained why going back to the old ways of teaching is not an option and how the UN can help bring new ideas into classrooms around the world and improve educational standards for the world’s children.

Leonardo Garnier, Special Adviser to the Summit "transform education".

Leonardo Garnier, Special Advisor to the Transforming Education Summit.

UN News: The UN is currently dealing with many major geopolitical issues, such as the climate crisis, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Why was education chosen as the main theme this year?

Leonardo Garnier: This is exactly the right time for it, because when the economy is going downhill, education is usually on the back burner: it is no longer a priority. Governments need money and they stop spending on education.

The problem is that the damage caused only becomes visible after several years. If we look at the education crisis of the 1980s, it was only in the 1990s and 2000s that we began to see the losses countries suffered due to a lack of investment in education.

Millions of children have not attended school due to the pandemic. But the pandemic has also highlighted what has been going on for years, which is that school learning wasn’t really appropriate for many.

UN News: Tell us about the education crisis of the 1980s: what happened and what were the consequences?

Leonardo Garnier: Many parts of the world experienced stagflation and a drastic reduction in education budgets. School enrollment rates fell, teacher numbers declined, and many children did not have access to education, particularly secondary education.

This means that in many countries only half of the labor force has completed primary school. Looking at the increase in poverty and inequality in many countries, it is very difficult not to see the connection with the decline in educational opportunities in the 1980s and 1990s.

UN News: Do you think what we are seeing today will possibly lead to a repeat of this situation?

Leonardo Garnier: It could happen. Between 2000 and 2018, we saw increases in school enrollment rates and investments in education in most countries. Education budgets were cut from there, and then the pandemic hit.

And there you have really two years of shutting down education in many countries along with an economic crisis. So yes, there is a risk that instead of recovering from the pandemic, we will end up in an even worse position than we were in 2019.

What the Secretary-General of the United Nations is saying is that we must protect education from this great blow and restore what we have lost in this pandemic. But actually we have to go further.

With SDG 4 [l’objectif de développement durable visant à améliorer l’accès à une éducation de qualité pour tous]the UN and the world community have set themselves very ambitious goals.

One might think that everyone should have the right to an education, but if we continue as we did before the pandemic, we will not achieve that.

At the Transforming Education Summit, we want to send this message: if we really want every young person on this planet to have the right to a quality education, we need to do things differently. We need to transform schools, the way teachers teach, the way we use digital resources and the way we fund education.

A young girl studies online at her home in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Photo: ©UNICEF/Frank Dejongh

A young girl studies online at her home in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

UN News: What is your vision for an education system for the 21st century?

Leonardo Garnier: It’s about content, what we teach and the relevance of education. On the one hand we need the basics of education – literacy, numeracy, scientific thinking – but we also need what some call 21st century skills. Social skills, problem-solving skills.

Teachers should impart knowledge by stimulating curiosity, helping students solve problems, and guiding them through the learning process. But for that, teachers need better training, better working conditions and better salaries, because in many countries teachers’ salaries are very low.

They need to understand that their authority does not come simply from having more information than their students, but also from their experience and ability to direct the learning process.

In any business, productivity is in part the result of the tools we use. When we talk about education, we’ve been using the same tools for about 400 years! With the digital revolution, teachers and learners could have access to many more creative tools for teaching and learning.

At the top, we say that digital resources are what economists call a typical public good: their production requires a lot of investment and is not cheap, but once produced, anyone can use them. .

We want digital learning resources to be turned into public goods, so that each country can share its own resources with other countries. For example, teachers from Argentina could share their content with those from Spain. Egypt has a great digital education project that could be shared with many other Arab countries.

The potential is there, but we need to bring it together in a digital learning resource partnership. This is another point that we will ask for at the summit.

Education is a human right

The Education Transformation Summit

The Transforming Education Summit will take place on Friday 16th, Saturday 17th and Monday 19th September.

  • Friday September 16th is the day of mobilization led and organized by young people, which allows to bring to the attention of decision-makers and policy-makers the concerns of young people regarding their education. It will focus on mobilizing the global public, youth, teachers, civil society and other stakeholders to support the transformation of education worldwide.
  • Saturday 17 September is all about solutions and a platform for initiatives that help transform education. The day revolves around five themes: inclusive, equitable, safe and healthy schools; learning and skills for life; work and sustainable development; teachers, teaching and the teaching profession; digital learning and transformation; and education funding.
  • Monday 19th September is Leaders Day and takes advantage of the fact that many Heads of State and Government will be visiting New York this week. Expect a flood of national commitments from these leaders.

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