The drive for quality education worldwide, faces ‘mammoth challenges’

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe Young women return home after classes in the town of Bol in Chad.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


Aligning inclusive, quality education with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was centre-stage on Friday, as the President of the UN General Assembly held a high-level interactive meeting for the International Day of Education.

“The education sector is wrestling with mammoth challenges worldwide”, said Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, in his message for the day.

Listing them, he said there was a “precipitate decline” in the quality and standards of education; a widening knowledge gap between students in technically advanced societies and those in developing countries; a crisis of learning in conflict zones; growing school bullying, and “the declining esteem of the teaching profession” overall.

Mr. Muhammad-Bande maintained that today’s education must “bridge the yawning gap” between the modern employment needs for specialized skills, and actual learning opportunities.

“School curricula have yet to anticipate and respond to workplace needs for hands-on, vocational, ICT applications, and sundry technical skills, while still advancing the traditional scholastic pursuits”, he stated.

Moreover, he highlighted, “the significance of the deficits in education outcome becomes obvious when viewed alongside the spiralling population crisis”.

Education in a crisis

The fate of school children trapped in conflict zones deserves even more urgent attention.

According to UNICEF, in 2017, 500 attacks were staged on schools in 20 countries worldwide. In 15 of those 20, troops and rebel forces turned classrooms into military posts.

Thousands of children were recruited to fight, sometimes made to serve as suicide bombers, or forced to endure direct attacks.

“The learning environment may also be rendered unsafe by gun-toting, machete-wielding, gangs and unruly youths, and by sexual predators on school premises”, Mr. Muhammad-Bande said.

And natural disasters pose additional threats to the learning environment.

Fixing the learning crisis – Assembly President recommendations:

  • Ensure instruction does not decline.
  • Align school curricula and work needs for competencies and skills.
  • Promote gender equality, social mobility, inter-cultural understanding.
  • Safeguard that persons with disabilities are included in education.
  • Respond to learning challenges caused by conflict and weather.
  • Enhance the capacities of education systems working in tandem with Governments, education planners and administrators.
  • Bridge the current gender, digital and financing gaps in education.

Cyclones, hurricanes and storms are among the climatic conditions that periodically wreak havoc on school buildings and facilities, making learning difficult, if not impossible.

“The choices that education stakeholders make have direct impact on various social groups, particularly, disadvantaged groups like rural communities, the urban poor, persons with disabilities, and women”, upheld the PGA, noting that nearly two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are female, mostly in under-developed countries.

Choice also becomes critical in the struggle to elevate the status of the teaching profession, recruit competent and motivated teachers, and expose teachers to innovative techniques.

But there are bright spots he said: “Forward-looking education policies have contributed to the attainment of SDG targets in some countries”, asserted Mr. Muhammad-Bande.

And participants at this year’s International Day of Education are given the opportunity “to share international good practices in inclusive quality education”.

Partnerships are key

Education enhances the “analytical, inventive and critical thinking capacities of human beings”, the Assembly President said, adding that in the process, it accelerates each nation’s technological attainments and economic growth.

“When a society remains perpetually under-developed, it must among other things re-evaluate its education system”, said Mr. Muhammad-Bande. “If the system is dysfunctional or does not facilitate the acquisition of pertinent knowledge and skills, the economy will, at best, stagnate, and at worst, collapse”.

Bearing in mind the “tremendous amount of work” that lies ahead, he shared his belief that partnerships can play an important role in implementing and attaining the SDGs, which is why his office “has placed strong emphasis on engendering partnerships across key priority areas”, including education.

In conclusion, Mr. Muhammad-Bande urged Member States and other key partners to examine the feasibility and value-added support in establishing a network of key existing education networks to exchange information and ideas, “including sources of support, relating to all aspects of education”.

Power of education

“Education has the power to shape the world”, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed spelled out at the podium.

“Education protects men and women from exploitation in the labour market” and “empowers women and gives them opportunities to make choices”, she said.

Moreover, it can help change behaviour and perceptions, thereby fighting climate change and unsustainable practices. A quality experience in the classroom helps promote mutual respect and understanding between people; combat misperceptions, prejudice and hate speech; and prevent violent extremism.

“Without education, we cannot achieve any of the SDGs”, Ms. Mohammed flagged.

And yet, with 2030 looming on the horizon, the world is lagging behind, prompting the Secretary-General to issue a global call for a Decade of Action, to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs.

“The situation in education is alarming…because of the crisis in the number of children, young people and adults who are not in education”, as well as because many who are, are not learning.

And refugees and migrants face additional challenges.

According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the proportion of refugees enrolled in secondary education is 24 per cent, only three per cent of whom have access to higher education.

“We have the power to shape education, but only if we work together and really bring the partnerships that are necessary to provide quality education”, she concluded. “We have a duty to step up our efforts, so that quality education for all is no longer a goal for tomorrow, but a reality”.

Invest in education

Action for “the four Ps on which our future depends”, namely people, prosperity, the planet and peace, is imperative, according to the head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO in her Friday message.

Although education is “a valuable resource for humanity”, Director-General Audrey Azoulay pointed out that it is “all too scarce for millions of people around the world”.

A global learning crisis, confirmed by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, is a major cause for concern as it is also a crisis for prosperity, for the planet, for peace and for people”, she said, urging everyone to take action for education “because education is the best investment for the future”.

UNESCO has been charged with coordinating the international community’s efforts to achieve SDG 4, quality education for all.

“First and foremost”, the UNESCO chief said, “our Organization takes action for people, by making education an instrument of inclusion and, therefore, of empowerment”.

Changing lives, transforming communities

For her part, Mona Juul, President of the UN Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC, maintained that education is “the most powerful means to escape poverty”.

“It changes lives, transforms communities and paves the way towards productive, sustainable and resilient societies in which children – girls and boys – can reach their full potential”, she expanded, urging everyone to strengthen their efforts to manifest a world in which every child receives a quality education that allows growth, prosperity, empowerment and so they can “make meaningful contributions to communities big and small, everywhere”.

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