Today, education is firmly back on the global agenda. On World Teachers’ Day, the international community should put teachers at the centre of the debate.
Above: The Atlantis Group meets Romania's President Klaus Iohannis in Bucharest, 3 October 2019
This World Teachers’ Day marks a significant milestone for education. Our world now has just over 10 years to meet its Sustainable Development Goal to deliver a quality and equitable education for all. Education is firmly back on the global agenda, with over US$800 million pledged to the cause during last month’s UN General Assembly in New York City. Such moves are to be welcomed. They may yet signal a serious and sustained commitment to deliver education for all, to close an annual funding gap estimated at US$39 billion per year. But if the world is to achieve its global education goal, the international community must also learn to listen to its teachers.
The size of the challenge we face cannot be underestimated. As former education ministers, we have grappled first-hand with the systemic issues that fuel the global learning crisis. Today, our successors are struggling with the same challenges. Worldwide, over 617 million children and young people are not achieving the minimum proficiencies in reading or mathematics according to the UN education agency, UNESCO. A further 263 million are out-of-school. In low and middle-income countries today, 53% of children cannot read and understand a simple text by age 10, according to the World Bank. Such Learning Poverty is suppressing the potential of the next generation.
The renewed global efforts to finance education at this year’s UN General Assembly are therefore to be welcomed. This September, for example, the international community pledged US$216 million to support the Education Cannot Wait fund for education in emergencies, and a further US$600 million to the new International Finance Facility for Education (IFFEd) to unlock education financing in lower-middle income countries.
There is no question that the international community must find the money to support education. After a decade of stagnation, aid to education is finally growing again. But teachers themselves must also be part of the solution. This World Teachers’ Day, it is time to recognize and celebrate their contribution to our global society. And it is more important than ever that teachers themselves are given a seat at the table.
Teachers are the world’s most indispensable profession. In most countries, it is a teacher who will introduce a child to their first letters and numbers, to read a basic sentence, and to add and subtract. It is a teacher who will teach a child how to write their own name. And it will most likely be a teacher who will eventually introduce a child to the sciences and to literature, history and art. Every student and parent knows that a good teacher is irreplaceable. Every education minister knows that there are not enough teachers to go around.
However, in too many countries teachers’ contributions are overlooked and marginalized. Research in 35 countries by the Varkey Foundation, a global education charity, has found that teachers do not enjoy a high social status. In most countries surveyed, the work of teachers was valued far less than that of a doctor or lawyer. Teachers also work far longer, and are paid far less, than most people think.
Put simply, teachers are not getting the recognition that they deserve. As former ministers, we recognize that this failure extends to government. Too often, teachers are shut out of policy debates. Governments often see teachers as an abstraction, in terms of budgets and statistics – a cog in the great machine of education, rather than as a valuable interlocutor to consult.
This has to change. For today, our world is asking more of its teachers than ever before. Governments rightly see education as the answer to a multitude of global crises, from political violence to the existential threat of climate change. Some also argue that the role of the teacher must shift still further, in order to equip students with the skills they will need for the 21st Century workplace.
But these are enormous responsibilities for a profession that is already overworked and underpaid. If the international community expect teachers to take up this mantle, then it must be prepared to support them. That must mean sustained funding from national governments and, where necessary, international bodies. But it also means listening to teachers’ needs and concerns, and giving them opportunities and resources to update their knowledge and skills, as well as to equip themselves with new and more modern methods of teaching.
Teachers themselves are not waiting for governments to catch up. Today, there are already many communities of educators worldwide who work to share experiences, overcome challenges and learn from each other’s experiences. Global policymakers, national governments and civil society alike should support these efforts to develop a rigorous and demanding education, to improve their students’ knowledge and skills.
Teachers should also have a greater voice in the global decisions that will shape their work, including in international meetings and summits on education. There is enormous value in having the everyday experience of classroom teachers inform such discussions. Teachers, after all, are extraordinary champions for change.
It is through efforts like these that we can keep education on the global agenda, where it belongs. As an international community, we should also recognize that it is time to give teachers a voice and a seat at that table.
Adopted by the Atlantis Group, following a meeting in Bucharest, Romania hosted by the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (SNSPA).
About the Atlantis Group
The Atlantis Group is a body of 26 former ministers of education and heads of government from around the world. Its members have over 90 years of combined experience in managing public education systems. The group advocates for action by the international community to address global issues in education and also puts its expertise and experience at the disposal of governments. The Atlantis Group was established by the Varkey Foundation, a global education charity, and launched at the 2017 Global Education & Skills Forum at the Atlantis The Palm hotel in Dubai, UAE.
The following Atlantis Group members met in Bucharest from 2-4 October 2019:
- Rosalia Arteaga, President and Vice-President of Ecuador [1996-1998]
- David Coltart, Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture of Zimbabwe [2009-2013]
- Claudia Costin, Secretary of Education for Rio de Janeiro [2009-2014]
- Brother Armin Luistro, Secretary, Department of Education of the Philippines [2010-2016]
- Hekia Parata, Minister of Education of New Zealand [2011-2017]
- Remus Pricopie, Minister of Education and Research of Romania [2012-2014] and State Secretary of Higher Education and Research [2007-2008]
- Jo Ritzen, Minister of Education and Science and of Education, Culture and Science of the Netherlands [1989-1998]
- Sabri Saidam, Minister of Education and Higher Education of Palestine [2015-2019]
- Srdjan Verbić, Minister of Education, Science and Technological Development of Serbia [2014-2016]
- George Werner, Minister of Education of Liberia [2015-2018]
This statement has further been endorsed by:
- Nuno Crato, Minister of Education and Science of Portugal [2011-2015]
- Jorge Ferrão, Minister of Education and Human Development of Mozambique [2015-2016]
- Stefania Giannini, Minister of Education, Universities and Research of Italy [2014-2016] and Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO [current role]
- Zlatko Lagumdžija, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina [2001-2002]
- Steve Maharey, Minister of Education of New Zealand [2005-2007]
- George Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece [2009-2011]; Minister of Education and Religious Affairs of Greece [1994-1996]
- Jamie Saavedra, Minister of Education of Peru [2013-2016] and Global Director for Education, World Bank Group [current role]
- Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Minister of Education, Higher Education and Research of France [2014-2017]
- Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth [2010-2014]