24 January has been proclaimed by the United Nations as the International Day of Education. It is not enough to celebrate this day in view of the critical, even dramatic, situation in which education finds itself in the world today. Blame it on the COVID-19 pandemic, but not only.
At the dawn of the 21st century, after decades of mobilization, it would have been reasonable and logical to see the right to education for all become universal. In 2021, more children, girls and boys, should have gone to school, followed by at least 12 years of free education, and master essential knowledge, enrich themselves with social and professional skills in order to become active citizens, that are responsible and resilient in the face of growing crises. So, yes, major progress has been made since the 2000s, but the goal of quality education for all remains, for the time being, a far cry.
A global crisis in education and learning
The COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the world has exacerbated a global education and learning crisis that had already been brewing for several years. At the end of 2019, the picture was not yet optimistic with a stagnation in the number of out-of-school children at 258 million , with nearly 1 in 6 children unable to read a simple sentence even after several years spent on school benches, with global public spending allocated to education far from the minimums recommended by the United Nations to consider any progress.
COVID-19, an aggravating factor
At the end of 2020, after weeks or even months of school closures and lockdowns in almost all countries, after a health crisis that in a few weeks became a global and multi-sector disaster, no wonder that the educational situation in the world has deteriorated further. The impacts of the health crisis on education have been fierce in the short and medium term and the consequences are likely to last for decades: during these months of lockdown, more than 500 million children were deprived of any possibility of study, and lacked help, materials or access to distance learning platforms. In France alone, the National Productivity Council estimates the loss of students’ skills at 14% following six weeks of lockdown and insists on the long-term repercussions that this loss will have on the French economy. In many other countries, the percentage of learning losses will be significantly higher.
It is now estimated that 24 million children are unlikely to return to school after the closures, and the number is set to be revised upwards. Added to this is a global economic crisis that threatens to lead to drastic cuts in education budgets for years at both national and international levels.
The goal of guaranteed education for all is drifting away
The World Bank estimates that the pandemic will increase the financing gap by a third, already of 148 million dollars before the crisis, which was necessary to achieve by 2030 quality education for all. The objective that seemed already compromised before COVID-19, now seems a far cry, thus jeopardizing the future of entire generations deprived of knowledge and essential skills to fit into and adapt to a constantly changing world. Unless, of course, unprecedented measures and funding are finally allocated to education. Developing countries, following the economic crisis, will not necessarily have the means to attribute more funds to education. The major donor countries, providers of development aid, will undoubtedly have an essential role to play in the face of this crisis and will be able, if they respect their initial commitments (allocate 0.7% of GDP to development aid), facilitate the reconstruction of an inclusive, qualitative, and resilient education system capable of coping with any type of crisis when they arise.
2021: a year full of promise?
The year 2021 is conducive to this with the holding of major events where education will necessarily be on the agenda: the G7 summit organized this year by the United Kingdom, which has already announced its desire to make education a priority, the Generation Equality Forum dedicated to the empowerment of girls and the fight against gender inequalities which was to take place in France in 2020 and was postponed, and finally the two refinancing conferences of two major international organizations (Global Partnership for Education and Education Cannot Wait) which support the improvement or reconstruction of education systems in developing countries and crisis situations. There will be plenty of opportunities to take action or invest heavily in education, but will international stakeholders measure up?
Lots of words but few commitments
Indeed, almost all of them have affirmed their desire to prioritize education, but it must be acknowledged that all countries, even the most developed, have suffered the full brunt of the crisis and have had to face massive unforeseen expenditure. It is a safe bet that some may favour sectors other than education and reduce their commitments to development aid. France, via its solidarity and development bill presented – with much delay – last December in the Council of Ministers, seems to underestimate the gravity of the crisis: the pandemic is indeed mentioned but no new means have been mobilized to support developing countries in the face of its consequences, humanitarian action is hardly mentioned, finally the bill only presents France’s commitments before the end of the five-year term but does not define any budgetary path to reach 0.7% of GNI French by 2025. Regarding education, the bill certainly reaffirms its importance and positive impact on sustainable development but does not give any visibility to France’s 1 future commitments. However, without major, rapid and collective investment, there is no longer any doubt that millions of children will remain forever excluded from education and will see their future sacrificed.