As record numbers of people tuned in to watch Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s funeral on 19 September 2022, another important global event was taking place.
In New York, more than 100 countries sent representatives to the Transforming Education Summit to define the future of education.
The summit was convened by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres to accelerate progress towards achieving inclusive, equitable quality education for all (Sustainable Development Goal 4). But with 244 million children out of school, this is no easy task.
That’s why, together with our partners, Sightsavers launched a global campaign called #DoYourHomework, which called on world leaders attending the summit to take urgent action to protect the rights of children with disabilities. We set them six pieces of ‘homework’ which ensured that education systems are truly inclusive and every child is guaranteed the right to an education. So, a month on from the summit, how did they do?
Sightsavers’ Liesbeth Roolvink shares the work we’re doing in programme countries to help transform education systems so that all children can go to school.Read the blog
First, we set leaders the task of including children with disabilities in mainstream education. It was great to see the UN Secretary-General’s call to create learning environments that include all children in his vision statement for the future of education. He also flagged the importance of laws and policies to promote inclusion and prevent violence, stigma and discrimination.
According to a UN analysis, 60% of countries acknowledged gaps in access, teachers and learning materials for students with disabilities. While barriers for learners with disabilities were sometimes mentioned, commitments failed to fully integrate inclusion in the collective vision for the future of education. Addressing this will require a fundamental change to build a system that educates children in all their diversity, with inclusion at its heart and one that provides targeted support to those at the highest risk of exclusion.
We also asked world leaders to improve data collection and analysis because having data on the most marginalised groups is essential to leaving no one behind. It is positive that the call to action on advancing gender equality highlighted the need to transform data systems to better collect data and understand the intersections between gender and disability. Young people were vocal at the summit and played a strong role in advocating for disability-inclusive education. Their Youth Declaration called for leaders to embrace diversity and take an intersectional approach to education.
Next, we called on leaders to invest in inclusive training so that teachers can respond to diverse learning needs and develop flexible curriculums for all children. Despite teaching capacity being mentioned in most of the 130 national statements of commitment, few teachers were present at the summit and there was little discussion around the need to improve teacher training to increase inclusion in education.
We also called for flexible curriculums that can be adapted to learners’ needs. Disappointingly, teaching methods and the importance of adopting the principle of universal design did not get much attention. The focus seemed to be on basic literacy and numeracy skills, with a particular push in the call to action on foundational learning, which included a welcome focus on disadvantaged learners. While ending learning poverty is essential, transforming education requires a radical rethink of curriculums as well as the ways that pupils learn.
We also challenged world leaders to tackle the digital divide and ensure that education technologies are accessible for all. A call to action on digital learning was launched at the summit, which included a welcome commitment to prioritise marginalised learners and ensure digital learning closes educational divides. This is essential, as many students worldwide lack the equipment, internet access, accessible materials, adapted content and support to allow them to engage with digital learning. However, it will be extremely challenging for countries with limited resources to provide the necessary support to avoid widening inequalities that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We then asked world leaders to engage people with disabilities in all stages of education design and for their voices to be heard. We were pleased to see people with disabilities represented at the summit – at the opening session of the Solutions Day, disability rights activist and comedian Maysoon Zayid made a passionate speech about every child’s right to education. The voices of people with disabilities were also included in other sessions throughout the summit.
While this was welcome, space for civil society engagement on Leaders Day was limited, and many activists who travelled to New York were unable to participate. It is also unclear how far people with disabilities and their representative organisations were able to engage with the 115 consultations which took place at a national level. Some consultation reports, such as Mozambique’s and Senegal’s, mentioned the participation of people with disabilities. However, our experience was that information about national consultations was often last minute and hard to find.
Education transformation cannot happen without increased financing. This was a central theme throughout the summit as governments were urged to see education as an investment in the future. A call to action on financing education was launched, demanding that governments invest more equitably and efficiently, including allocating specific portions of the education budget to the most marginalised families, such as those with children with disabilities. If fulfilled, this commitment has the potential to turn the promise to ‘leave no one behind’ into action.
Together with partners, Sightsavers launched a Disability-Inclusive Education Call to Action urging world leaders to invest more in inclusive education and ensure that learners with disabilities are included in education programmes. These are ambitious asks to ensure that every child, including the 240 million children with disabilities worldwide, can benefit from education. We were inspired by USAID, which rose to the test and challenged the World Bank to see which agency would get to 100% of inclusive education programmes first. We urge other governments to follow their example.
Finally, we set world leaders homework to show the political will to implement inclusive policies, plans and budgets. We were pleased to see so many leaders debate solutions to some of the main challenges around education. But while the summit revealed good intentions, this homework is not yet done.
Overall, leaders did complete some of their homework, but commitments are meaningless without increased financing and tangible action. Leaders must be held accountable for the promises they have made, and the UN system should ensure that countries report on how they are meeting their targets for all learners, including those with disabilities. Further work is also needed at the national level to transform education for every child. Sightsavers and partners will continue to demand change and encourage ministers of education to sign up to our Disability-Inclusive Education Call to Action and embed inclusion and equity across education systems. Only then will they be able to get top marks on their homework.
Mariana Rudge is Sightsavers’ senior policy adviser for social inclusion and education.
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In February 2023, Sightsavers will present at the Comparative and International Education Society conference in Washington DC.