Opinion: As historic meeting of the G20 approaches, it must listen to the voice of education

This September, India’s education minister will join the G20’s discussions in Mendoza, Argentina. This is the first time in the near two-decade history of the G20 that education ministers have met to discuss global education trends and policy challenges.

The fact that, under Argentina’s presidency, education ministers will have a place at the table for the first time is deeply significant. It is an overdue recognition that matters of economic growth, trade and development are inseparable from education.

And for the first time ever, a group of leading education-focused civil society organisations (CSOs) from around the world will also convene on the fringe of the G20, meeting ministers as well the President of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, to discuss how to solve the world’s deepening education problems. This group will present the G20 ministers with four papers on how to create a highly motivated and professional teaching force; issues around education, equity and inclusion; how to match the future labour market with the right youth skills; and how education, young people and social media interact.

As education ministers travel to Argentina there will be no air of triumphalism. They will be acutely aware that, despite a blizzard of summit communiques, soaring rhetoric and ambitious promises, there is a deep global education crisis that among many other pressing demands often finds itself too far down the in-tray of the world’s governments.

In many developing economies, teachers and facilities are lacking – and even where they are provided, pupils are not gaining the skills they will need for the future.The damning statistics should be burnt into our consciousness. It is a scandal that in 2018,  over 260 million children are out of schoolglobally, and of the 650 million primary school-age children in school, 250 million are not learning the basics. In order to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of quality education for all, we will need to recruit 69 million teachers by 2030.

That education ministers are meeting to address these problems is a vital first step. However, equally important will be another group who are too often missing from global economic discussions: the independent civil society organisations that devote their work to education. It’s time for governments to accept that, to solve the global education crisis, they need to take notice of the views of civil society organisations.

The institutional knowledge of CSOs, often acquired over decades and combined with extensive on-the-ground experience, means they have insights that could be of huge benefit to ministers.  While ministers have to work on short electoral cycles, and often barely have time to make an impact before they are moved to other jobs, civil society groups can build specialist expertise year-on-year, decade-on decade.

This September’s meeting of the CSOs provides a more concrete way of pushing recommendations to the fore and proposing solutions to the global challenges of education head-on. The group includes organisations from Plan International Canada – which is training teachers and bringing schools, resource centres, and libraries to children in Africa, some of whom have never even held a book – to Dubai Cares – which is working to improve children’s access to quality primary education in developing countries. Other organisations involved include BRAC, Camfed, Club de Madrid, Education International, Forum for African Women Educationalists, Global Campaign for Education, the Harvard School of Education, ICRC, Achievement International, Leeman Foundation, and National Institute of Education of Singapore – CSOs that have spent decades at the coalface tackling the world’s greatest educational challenges. They will be joined by the Varkey Foundation’s Atlantis Groupof former ministers of education and former heads of government across the world, who will share with them their experiences of tackling these same challenges from within the corridors of power. Such wisdom will prove crucial when the group of CSOs meets with the G20 nations’ education ministers in person and calls for governments to take action on their recommendations.

India has a strong track record of engaging civil society in education, which is why we are positive that its government will be open to hearing this new perspective in the debate. Around 1.5 million NGOs work in India, with more than 19 million people working as volunteers or paid staff. A survey by the Society for Participatory Research in Asia established that one in five of these 1.5 million NGOs works in education, mostly focusing on disadvantaged groups, women, children, and challenging rural or urban areas.

As well as grassroots educational work, many CSOs contribute to national educational debates, and continually promote education as a key issue. Various NGOs, either alone or through coordinating networks, have partnered or consulted with the Asian Development Bank on a wide range of projects including Women’s Empowerment, Attacking Poverty, and Knowledge Capacity Building; and the Indian government has also worked with NGOs through forums such as the Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology. This broadening of the conversation is a good thing: too often, education debates remain insular and parochial, when civil society groups have important experience that others could learn from.

As the Chairs of the group of CSOs convening in Mendoza, we look forward to hearing the outcome of the meeting of G20 education ministers. However, such meetings of education ministers should not be a once-a-decade occurrence: they should be a permanent fixture at the G20 and G7 every year. Next year, the presidencies of the G20 and G7 fall to Japan and France respectively: it would be welcome to see this format of discussion with education ministers continue.

Regardless of whether this happens, as governments debate what action is needed, it is increasingly the ideas of civil society groups that are showing how the global education crisis can be fixed. We must heed their call for action – the interconnected world we live in means that it is not just other countries’ future at stake – it is ours as well.

Co-authored by Esteban Bullrich (senator of Buenos Aires and former Argentinian minister for education) and Vikas Pota (chairman of the Varkey Foundation) – co-chairs of a new group of civil society organisations meeting alongside the G20 education ministers summit in Mendoza, Argentina.

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