Transforming ‘What and How’ of Learning Will Help Repurposed Education for All, Deputy Secretary-General Says at Pre-Summit Closing
Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s closing remarks at the Transforming Education Pre-Summit, in Paris today:
We have reached the end of a seismic week for transforming education: so much energy; so much discussion; so many ideas, with the education community, particularly education ministers, out in force in a way not seen for years.
We were joined in person by over 1,850 people. We were joined by 2 Heads of State and 154 Ministers and Deputy Ministers of Education who brought a crucial national perspective to transformation. We were joined by 200 young people whose presence was felt throughout. And we were joined by the many actors that make up our dynamic and diverse global education family.
I have to say I really, really wish I could have been right there with you, but, like thousands of others who joined online, I still very much felt part of the discussion. So, a big thank you to all who came together.
And an especially big thanks to Director General Azoulay, to [Assistant Director General] Stefania, to the Summit secretariat and to the teams across UNESCO [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] who all really put their shoulder to the wheel this past few weeks and did an amazing job.
The fact that we came together in this way at a difficult time in our world is an important outcome in itself — something I will come back to shortly. Over three days, we held hugely insightful sessions on the “what” and “how” of transforming education.
We had a youth forum that we must now build on by putting youth in the heart of the Summit in September in a truly meaningful way. We had amazing side meetings on mobilizing commitment on some critical pieces. And we saw meetings of the High-Level Steering Committee on SDG4 [Sustainable Development Goal 4], the International Commission on the Futures of Education; and the Summit Advisory Committee — all key to this process.
So, where does this leave us as we look to maximize the impact of the September Summit? Just a few hours ago, I discussed this with Minister Sengeh, Leonardo, Stefania and the members of the Summit Advisory Committee. Overall, there was a sense that we now have a very real momentum. And we have the basis for concrete outcomes in September and beyond.
But, there are some tensions, which is healthy. And there is a considerable amount of work for all of us to do. So, let me try to speak to this through four main takeaways. First, we are moving towards a common vision for education transformation. I think we know now what transformation is not about. It’s not about filling gaps. It’s not about tweaking. It’s not about selecting one or two big issues. It’s not about more of the same, even better, even faster. And we also know to a large extent, what it is about.
The report of the International Commission on the Futures of Education provides a critical point of departure in this regard. And I want to pay tribute to President Sahle-Work and her fellow commissioners for their outstanding work and continued commitment. Transformation is about repurposing education and rethinking the “what” and “how” of learning. It is about adopting new policies, practices, approaches and governance systems to ensure that education equips every learner with the skills, knowledge and values that will allow them to thrive.
It is doing this, each in our own context, supported by the international community and contributing to a better future for all. This brings me to the first tension that was evident this week — between the immediate and the long‑term; between recovery and transformation.
This is understandable. There are enormous needs and resources are scarce. But, we must recognize that building back to the same as before the pandemic will not get us to our 2030 goals. So, we need to prioritize recovery and accelerate implementation of the education targets, yes. But, we need to do it in a way that embraces innovation, allows countries to leapfrog in their development and lays foundations for transformation up to 2030 and beyond.
How do we do that? Leveraging in particular the work of the Action Tracks, we are beginning to see the emergence of some common elements for transforming the “what” and “how” of learning.
In terms of the learning environment, the focus of Action Track 1, I believe we have agreement on some fundamentals. We need to transform all learning environments and their place in society to cater to intrinsic value and well-being of every learner — their nutrition, their mental health and their safety — and we need to do it with a life-long learning perspective.
We need to ensure that the learning environment provides all learners in all contexts with access to an education that sets them up to thrive in life. And here we need a laser‑sharp focus on those who are excluded again and again from education: persons with disabilities; children in rural areas; those from poorer backgrounds; displaced persons; and many more — all often intersecting.
And let me address one underlying issue here. The single greatest action we can take to ensure the safety of learners and access to learning for all is to end wars, political violence, terrorism and systemic discrimination across the world. That goes, in particular, for the war in Ukraine, which is inflicting a terrible toll on Ukrainian lives, livelihood and education.
And it goes also for the situation in Afghanistan where the long-standing discrimination against girls’ education continues today. In terms of the “what” of education, which is the focus of Action Track 2, we can see more and more emphasis being placed on four pillars: on foundational learning; on skills for life and living together; on skills for a changing world of work; and on education for sustainable development.
These pillars need to become more integrated, more context-specific and more gender-transformative. And there are concrete proposals here: to get behind for a rapid recovery of learning losses; to support at least two years of free pre-school education; to advance legislative measures to ensure entitlements to adult learning and education in a lifelong perspective; to integrate climate change into curricula; to revisit what the right to education is; and to rethink pedagogies of curiosity and cooperation rather than repetition and competition.
But, here, we also see a second tension between a focus on foundational learning and a focus on the full spectrum of educational needs and priorities. We have to find common ground on building blocks of truly transformative education. And I know that those who are strong advocates for foundational learning are well intentioned, so let’s respect the different views here.
But, for two reasons, I feel this is a false dichotomy. First, I don’t believe that there is a choice here. Our world has changed and is changing at a dramatic pace, and education needs to catch up. This isn’t a luxury. As the Secretary-General said, any country this is not advancing a root and branch overhaul of its entire education system today risks being left behind tomorrow. And this can’t be something that is reserved for developed countries alone.
And second, while we need to double down on securing foundational learning for all, we cannot have a one-size-fits-all formula and it cannot be the only priority. We need to listen closely to what developing countries themselves say they want. And what I heard from Ministers this week it that they want to pursue an education that will support their people, their societies and their economies.
So, let’s be clear. While the Secretary-General does intend to put forward a vision for transforming education in September, the Transforming Education Summit will not decide what a government should prioritize or how a government should sequence its education system transformation. And nor should that be dictated by donors or their partners. Only national authorities, in their unique context, working hand in hand with other local actors, with their societies, with young people, can and should make that choice. This is perhaps the first step to transformation.
Turning now to teaching and teachers, Action Track 3, there is no transformation of education without the transformation of the teaching profession, with teachers moving away from instructor of the pact to the guide and facilitator who is supporting autonomous learning.
And again, there are some concrete proposals here. It is clear that we need to empower the teaching workforce with the capacities and tools they need to help us transform. We need to rethink the professional competencies of transformative teachers. And we need to invest in the education workforce to make this happen, including through possible spending benchmarks on teachers. But, while we need to build this enabling environment, we teachers, and in particular, their unions to embrace this journey with an open mind.
In terms of digital learning, we see a convergence around five critical areas: expanding efforts to connect learners as we drive for broader universal connectivity and close the digital divide, including by bringing education to those for whom school is simply not an option; developing national, regional and global public digital education platforms and launching a drive for open public digital learning resources as part of the digital commons; leveraging digitalization to maximize potential of in-person learning; and ensuring that the digital transformation of education is accompanied by a commitment to democratic, participatory governance and the protection of the safety and privacy.
And finally, in terms of education financing, we have come a long way, and yes, we are beginning to see the bigger picture. We need to increase the volume and effectiveness of education financing, including from a spending-per-student perspective, especially in lower- and middle-income countries. And we need to change the narrative that positions such financing as a simple expenditure rather than the incredible investment that it is.
We have specific proposals that rightly look at domestic financing of education through the prism of public investment in social goods — in education, health and social protection. These include actions on tax, debt servicing, deficit financing and more. They include, of course, efforts on equitable and efficient use of educational investment, with adequate accountability data and mechanisms.
And crucially, they include important proposals on international financing — including on aid, on the role of the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the broader multilateral development banks, including the operationalization of the International Financing Facility for Education. It is simply not credible to insist that developing countries meet their domestic financing benchmarks while international financing to education is falling.
In all of this, we also saw some important momentum build around some specific global initiatives. These include initiatives on school meals; on digital learning resources; on learning recovery; [and] on innovative financing and more. I do not have time to go into details on these, but I encourage partners to get behind these initiatives between now and September.
My second takeaway is that we have a considerable amount of work to do to move generate the political commitment to turn these elements into action. In their interventions, Governments spoke to many of the above elements. Certainly, there was a focus on how to reach the most vulnerable; leverage digital learning; on gender equality; on foundational learning; on skills for the labour market and much more.
But, I also heard quite a bit that was centred on the education system and plans that exists today. When Heads of State come to the United Nations in September, we need them to speak directly to the education system they envisage for the future and to the commitments they can make now to make this happen — including how they can integrate transformation into their efforts to drive recovery and accelerate SDG progress.
We also need their constituencies and the entire education ecosystem to support them when they do so. I understand that the vast majority of countries are only now beginning their Transforming Education national consultations. I urge you to really engage with the question of transformation when doing so. I urge you to bring in your partners from youth, students, civil society, teachers, the private sectors and parents.
And please count on the United Nations resident coordinators and our partners UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund], UNESCO, ILO [International Labour Organization], ITU [International Trade Organization], UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and many more who are there to support you in this endeavour.
My third takeaway is that we have to reimagine the vehicles for change that we have in place at the national and international levels. At the national level, this starts with a securing a whole-of-Government approach. If transformation is our objective, then we need finance, labour, health, agriculture, digital transformation and other ministries to see their responsibilities for driving educational progress, as well.
And we need national institutes, teacher-training colleges and more to join that effort. We could not do this for this Pre-Summit because, ultimately, this can only be done at the country level.
This also applies to securing a whole‑of‑society approach. I sensed a degree of frustration this week from our teachers, our youth, our civil society partners. That we continue to say the right things about stakeholder inclusion, but that we are not really challenging ourselves.
As one young person said: “To our leaders: we do not need to be praised for our resilience, for how far we’ve come or how passionate we are to see a change that doesn’t have our address. We want you to lead, to stand by your words and truly transform education in a way where we are all included.”
At the international level, we also have work to do. We are fortunate to have some of the most amazing and committed people in the multilateral system dedicating their lives to education. But, I get the sense that we don’t really feel that transforming education means transforming how we work — as a collective of education partners.
Each of our leading actors — UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank, education funds and more — need to think about whether their business models are what we need to support countries on their journey to education transformation; whether we are creating space and finding ways to bring the capacities of our specialized agencies, funds and programmes to bear on the ground.
This is not the sole responsibility of the leadership of these organizations. This is also the responsibility of our Member States, the boards of these organizations and the donors who support them. The establishment of the High-Level Steering Committee is an important step forward and I commend the Director-General of UNESCO, the President of Sierra Leone and the Committee members for lending their time and commitment to this new arrangement. As we move beyond the Summit, it will be essential that we strengthen our engagement with the Committee to deliver on its mandate.
My final takeaway, is that all of this deep, transformative change simply will not happen without a movement for transformation. If the global public, students, teachers, parents, civil society, business and others do not demand this change, if they do not mobilize for concrete action, then Governments are unlikely to give this the priority it deserves.
So, that is why I will finish with a call for much greater public engagement and for a global movement for transforming education: a movement for action, transformation and accountability. A movement that can unite behind a new vision for this September and announce itself to the world as a bold, loud, expectant movement.
And again, there is a tension here — between the structures and actors we have today and the reality on the ground. We need our traditional civil society actors to fully mobilize on the ground. But, we also need to expand the movement; to connect with other movements; to give spaces to new voices; to engage new constituencies, including parents. We need to ignite this movement.
But, it cannot be controlled. It must be seeded to grow organically, locally, globally. This week, I could feel that you see the need to come together. You recognize that we need to focus on the big picture. So, over the coming months, I encourage you to put our heads together, to find the common ground and the right tactics to ignite a groundswell of support for education transformation.
We’ve come to the end of a long week. We have momentum and opportunity. We have done an amazing job, together, to get this far. But, we all have a great deal of work to do. Over the next two months, we need to move forward together on a number of fronts.
We need to sharpen the input from the Thematic Action Tracks, as we look to the Secretary-General’s vision statement for transforming education that will serve as a key input to the intergovernmental negotiations on the Summit of the Future. We need to support countries as they go back to their capitals and look to deepen their national consultations — and expand the engagement with key stakeholders.
We need to learn ourselves from what young people told us — that they were pleased to be involved — but that they want to be more integrated in real discussions with world leaders. And we need to work together to ignite a new movement in September — grounded in the priorities of students, teachers, parents and people across the world. So, thank you again to everyone.
As the Secretary-General said in his opening: “Let’s aim high, let’s build on the outcomes of this amazing pre-summit and let’s get to work.” Thank you.