At U.N. meeting, world leaders asked to focus on education crisis

Activists at an education summit in New York City on Monday implored world leaders to prioritize school systems and restore education budgets slashed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The summit, held ahead of the annual meeting of leaders at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, called on the world’s nations to ensure children everywhere don’t fall too far behind.

“Seven years ago, I stood on this platform hoping that the voice of a young girl who was bulleted while campaigning for her education would be heard,” said Malala Yousafzai, a UN peace envoy. “On this day, countries, businesses and civil society pledged to work together to see every child in school by 2030. It is heartbreaking that halfway through this target date we are faced with an education emergency.”

Nigerian youth activist Karimot Odebode was more explicit. “We demand that you take responsibility,” Odebode said before the general assembly. “We will not stop until every person in every village and upland has access to education.”

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The percentage of 10-year-old children in poor and middle-income countries who cannot read a simple story has risen to an estimated 70 percent — a 13 percentage point increase since before the pandemic closed classroom schools, according to a report by two UN agencies and the World Bank.

Helping their youngest citizens learn to read and learn other skills must address issues that existed before the pandemic, dignitaries and students say. Countries need to increase spending, change policies to improve access for girls and students with disabilities, and modernize teaching to emphasize critical thinking rather than memorization.

“This is a unique opportunity for us to radically transform education,” UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told reporters ahead of the Education Summit at the UN Headquarters in New York.

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A final United Nations statement after the meeting said 130 countries had committed to “rebooting their education systems” and taking action to end the learning crisis. It was unclear how they would do this. Countries were asked to spend at least 20 percent of their national budgets on education.

When the pandemic closed schools around the world in spring 2020, many children stopped learning – some for months, others longer. According to a December 2020 study by the UN Education Agency and the International Telecommunication Union, more than 800 million young people around the world did not have internet access at home.

According to analysis by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, estimated learning delays ranged, on average, from over 12 school months for students in South Asia to less than four for students in Europe and Central Asia.

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In many places, money is the most important ingredient in ending the crisis. On average, affluent countries spend $8,000 a year per student, compared to upper-middle-income countries such as Latin America, which invest $1,000 a year, according to a report by UNESCO, a UN agency. which deals with education, and Global Education Monitoring. Lower-income countries provide about $300 per year and some poor countries only $50 per year per student.

When senior dignitaries at the meeting urged individual countries to prioritize their youngest citizens, some of the youngest participants expressed doubts about lasting change. Finally, the United Nations lacks the power to force countries to spend more on education.

Yousafzai called on countries to spend 20 percent of their budget on education. “Most of you know exactly what to do,” she said. “You must not make small, stingy, and short-term commitments.”

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