Building Character and Resilience into Global Education’s Post-Pandemic Recovery

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By Ben Perks 
UNICEF Head of Campaigns and Advocacy and Honorary Senior Research Fellow with the Jubilee Centre

100 weeks of pandemic have cost more than a trillion hours of learning loss. The pre-pandemic out of school population of 9% has grown significantly. Learning inequality worsened in the UK and US. In the city of Wall Street and Trump Tower, 300,000 of the poorest New York schoolchildren lacked means to access online lessons.  50% of children in low and middle-income countries in learning poverty-who go to school but don’t learn-are even further away from obtaining the full range of skills they need to flourish in work and life.

The challenge of this global learning emergency may seem insurmountable. Yet we have much more knowledge, resources, and tech than prior generations who successfully addressed even bigger problems. It was a human choice for them. The critical ingredients were values of a shared humanity. This superpower helped them change the world for the better.  These values grew in the shadow of the last global emergency-World War Two. The lessons from the Covid19 crisis can help us re-sanctify the things that really matter, and turbo charge our will to build a better world.

There is no better place to start than education. Every country needs an education system where each child is accounted for and has a place in a school that is safe and promotes their belonging and wellbeing. As prior generations sought to eradicate smallpox and polio, we need to make it our mission to eradicate learning inequality and learning poverty. Every child has a right to develop the full range of intellectual, moral, civic and performance skills to flourish.

To paraphrase Rutger Bregman in the chapter ‘Why It Doesn’t Pay To be A Banker’ in his book: Utopia For Realists he said that instead of educating children to fit into the world as it is, we need to empower them to build the type of world we would want them to live in.

Our resilience to shocks like Covid19 is built upon the things we share, common values and universal human rights. By putting them at the heart of our education systems we can help children build the type of world we would want them to live in.

Lessons learnt from the past

We forget that robust prevention of childhood mortality is relatively new.

This universal prevention can partially be credited to a paper delivered at the University of Birmingham in 1982.  Dr John Rohde argued vaccine protection against childhood disease could be expanded from rich countries to all countries.

This simple and compelling idea ricocheted around UNICEF and WHO headquarters in New York and Geneva until it became policy. Three things followed: 1) Global vaccine coverage of under-fives increased from 20% to 80% in a decade. 2) Child mortality reduced by 61% in the following two decades and 3) The world no longer saw the death of poor children as inevitable.

I am not sure there is a plaque for John Rohde or his paper at the university. We rightly commemorate the lives lost to war, slavery and the holocaust. We should celebrate the millions of lives saved annually because of this child survival revolution.

The progress did not occur in a vacuum. The period brought expansion of education, water and sanitation access and human rights protections, underpinned by the most widely ratified UN treaty the Convention of the rights of the Child (CRC). Like all UN human rights treaties, the CRC sought to protect and uplift the unique individual with a set of non-negotiable rights that transcend borders and difference. It is hard to think of a more tangible expression of shared global values in human history.

Then it all began to slow down.

In the decade prior to the pandemic, results for children stagnated. If they had continued at the earlier pace-despite population growth-universal school and vaccine access could have been achieved. Progress on quality of learning and prevention of inequality, poverty and child maltreatment could have been advanced. 

The productive optimism of universalism gave way to what Elif Shfak describes as a period of disillusionment and bewilderment. Disillusioned by military and economic failures and bewildered by an acceleration of change. As David Brooks has argued, policy makers disregard human complexity of character, trust, emotion and belonging when devising strategies that then fail with catastrophic and lasting costs.

There is a retreat from a shared view of universal human rights to a polarizing view of rights being tied to identity. The momentum for audacious goals to address the world’s biggest problems is threatened by a more transactional and inward way of looking at the world.

Linear progress over time is not a false idea, it is a human choice. Science, knowledge and wealth grows.  Global progress only occurs when it is harnessed by diverse constituencies able to collaborate and compromise. The space to do that has shrunk. Though not completely.

This stagnation left us unnecessarily vulnerable to the pandemic and its aftershocks. This is self-evident in global education.

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