UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed has said that some 263 million children and young people are out of school despite global promises and progress, indicating that achieving quality education for all by 2030 is seriously off track.
The issue is under discussion this week at the latest session of the Commission on Population and Development (CPD), taking place at the UN Headquarters in New York City of the United States. In her opening remarks, Amina Mohammed began by highlighting the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan, who have been banned from high school and university, calling this one of the gravest educational challenges.
She underlined how education was a crucial long-term investment for a sustainable future, for people and the planet. However, she said that countries were facing a triple crisis in education – one of equity and inclusion, quality and relevance, to equip current and future generations with the skills they need to thrive in a fast-changing world. She said that the out of school children represent just one challenge for the world.
‘We need to learn how to learn throughout our lives, and learn to live in peace with one another and with nature’
Equally concerning is the fact that many students simply are not learning, she said, as nearly 70 per cent of children in poorer countries cannot understand a basic text by age 10, mainly due to chronic factors such as poverty and malnutrition. “Ultimately, we need to reimagine and transform our educational systems if they are to be fit for purpose,” she said. “We need to learn how to learn throughout our lives, and learn to live in peace with one another and with nature.”
Amina Mohammed stressed that success will also require examining the link between education, technology and demographic trends, and acting upon the opportunities and challenges they bring. She called for initiatives to get all learners climate-ready and connected to the internet and the world of digital innovation, which is especially important for girls and women from the Global South, who are the most excluded.
The international community will also need to consider how to benefit from the world’s demographic diversity, with some countries having a median age of around 50, and others, just 15. This also applies to older persons, who will comprise the majority of the global population by 2050, and to persons with disabilities. She highlighted the need to ensure inclusive education for women and girls, and to encourage them to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Natalia Kanem underlines need to protect and defend education for all, including comprehensive sexuality education to equip adolescents with information and skills to develop positive, healthy relationships
The gender theme was picked up by UN Population Fund Executive Director Natalia Kanem, who described education as a door opener and life changer, particularly for vulnerable women and girls. “When provided with knowledge and skills, they need to know and claim their rights, better educated women are more likely to be healthier, marry later and to plan the number and spacing of children,” she said.
“They are more likely to use prenatal care, to vaccinate their children and to seek health services when their children need care. They are more likely to participate in the formal labor market and earn higher incomes,” she said. Education also reduces the likelihood of child marriage, female genital mutilation and other harmful practices, and it lowers the risk of gender-based violence.
Natalia Kanem underlined the need to protect and defend education for all, including comprehensive sexuality education to equip adolescents with information and skills to develop positive, healthy relationships. This dedicated education helps girls avoid unintended pregnancies; it also encourages both girls and boys to stay in school, among other benefits. “It gives people the information and power to take charge of their own reproductive rights and choices, and development outcomes improve,” she said.
In a pre-recorded message, UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) head Li Junhua addressed how population dynamics impact education, using the millions out of school, as well as the low proficiency in math and reading as examples. He said in some parts of the world, where public financing capacity was limited, a rapidly growing school-aged population makes it more difficult to achieve education goals.
Other places have experienced relative declines in this sector of the population, resulting in less pressure on education budgets, which has opened up opportunities to boost investments geared towards young people and adults alike. The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed fault lines in education systems. “Children and young people in low and lower-income countries were deprived of access to learning as these countries saw large cuts in public spending on education.”
‘We must promote learning throughout life – for everyone: for active citizenship, employability, health and well-being – and cohesion of our communities’
Li Junhua underlined the need to support these government investments. “This will require investing in digital literacy and closing the digital divide, drawing the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. And we must continue expanding access to the internet and digital technologies for education.” The pandemic, together with conflict, climate change and rising food insecurity, have further deepened inequalities, said Xing Qu, deputy director-general of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
This situation has led to a dual crisis affecting learning and well-being, he noted, again citing staggering out-of-school figures and factors mentioned previously, such as unintended pregnancies. “Added to this are increasing rates of depression and stress among young people in many contexts – fuelled by fear of what the future holds, among other factors. The toll of these stressors on health and well-being are leading to increased student drop-out and teacher shortages,” he said.
At the UN’s Transforming Education Summit last September, he recalled that nearly two-thirds of countries expressed concern over the well-being of their teachers and students. In response, UNESCO outlined strong action in three key areas: closing the gender gap in school enrollment and participation; supporting education on the issues of puberty, relationships, and sexual and reproductive health; and strengthening efforts to embed health and well-being in schools, including through ensuring the provision of nutritious school meals.
He said that the learning doesn’t stop once a child leaves the classroom. “This is why we must also promote learning throughout life – for everyone: for active citizenship, employability, health and well-being – and the cohesion of our communities.” The Commission on Population and Development was established nearly 80 years ago by the UN Economic and Social Commission, one of the six main bodies of the global organization. This current session will conclude on Friday.