By David Edwards, General Secretary, Education International
Ask teachers what keeps them engaged with their students and it’s invariably some version of this: that moment they see the spark of understanding in a student’s eye, that point when they really ‘get’ a particular lesson.
That’s the “aha” moment we experienced as world leaders came together at the United Nations to face the reality of the global education crisis, a gathering dubbed the “Transforming Education Summit” organized by Secretary General António Guterres.
The summit brings together heads of state to accelerate progress on Sustainable Development Goal 4 on quality education for all. It is the first-ever global leadership focus on education, which has been severely affected by pandemic-related learning loss, deepened and exacerbated inequities, and cuts to education budgets globally.
For the world’s teachers, including the 32 million teachers and education workers from pre-school to university who are members of 383 unions in our global federation, this is a transformational opportunity, a chance to make an authentic assessment of the ambition and reality of world leaders’ commitment to real change. Is it real? Is it built on evidence and experience? Does it include collaboration with the world’s teachers and their unions and other organizations?
What do genuine commitments look like? Very simple.
First, make a commitment to students. Not just lip service, but a commitment as strong as the one teachers make to them. Governments must protect the right to education and be accountable for ensuring quality, equity and inclusion in public education systems. Around the world, education privatization threatens quality and equity, including the proliferation of so-called ‘low-fee’ private schools, commercialization of public education and misguided public-private partnerships. Quality education is more than a human right, it is a public good. As the EdTech industry – bloated by the pandemic and still largely evidence-free – continues its effort to insert itself into schools, education systems must be accountable and not be handed off to the markets.
Government commitment to public education must be tangible in national budgets. Today, education financing is in crisis, which means education systems in many countries are on life support. Governments must invest in public education by both increasing the size of national budgets and increasing the share of finance going to education. Equitable funding formulas should deploy resources to the communities and institutions and where they are needed most. To increase the size of national budgets, we need both domestic and global tax justice to ensure that all companies pay their fair share of tax and that tax loopholes are closed. The world is watching for governments to recognize that education is not a cost but a long-term investment.
The key component of this investment is in teachers. Quality education for every student is impossible unless governments commit to investing in teachers. Every child has the right to a qualified teacher, and we know 69 million more are needed by 2030. But the prospects of recruiting and retaining qualified teachers are made worse by poor working conditions and low salaries.
It’s time for a new deal for teachers. To make teaching a lifelong career, teachers must be supported, valued and paid their worth in the profession. They must have manageable workloads, genuine work-life balance and working conditions that support their mental and physical wellbeing. Instead of precarious employment conditions, teachers should have negotiated salaries competitive with those of those in comparable professions. Governments must stop policies that de-professionalize teachers such as the hiring of contract or unqualified teachers.
Teachers and education support personnel are at the heart of successful education systems. Being in the classroom working with students every day, educators are best placed to identify roadblocks to learning, paths to overcome learning loss, and workable solutions for improving education systems.
Teachers are ready to help lead the way forward beyond the United Nations summit; to add our considerable expertise to the international dialogue and commitments. Social dialogue and collaboration between unions and education systems is already raising education quality and prospects across the world.
Education philosopher John Dewey observed more than a half century ago that education comes alive in the relationship between teacher and student. What’s true for the classroom and hybrid equivalent can be true for raising our sights and meeting our goals nation by nation as well.
By making commitments on the world stage at the UN to transform education systems, national leaders signaled to educators, communities and their own people that a new deal is needed, that quality education matters. That’s why teachers and their unions are standing with the Secretary General; to commit ourselves to joining with the world at this time of crisis, to lead the way forward to transform education.