Monday, September 1, 2014

Why access to education is not for all (yet)

You can’t improve education if you don’t know what’s wrong and why. Before I provide a short account on why many lack access to education let me give you first a short overview of what UNESCO does to overcome these challenges.

To promote and secure the human right to education, UNESCO first motivates its Member States to adopt official statements in which they commit themselves to undertake the necessary actions for better education. These statements are called either Conventions (commitments that bind only countries which have ratified them) and Recommendations (more practical guidelines on how to improve education). Next, to make sure these legal instruments are more than just applauded good intentions, UNESCO helps countries to put these good intentions in practice by providing policy advice, by organizing workshops, conferences and by enabling countries to share best practices and learn from eachother.

These interventions are essential but not enough. Because just like with any job – small or big – to achieve Education for All it’s indispensable to have some overview of the global situation and to keep track of progress. This monitoring job is done in part by UNESCO’s Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, the so-called “CR” (pronounced as “cruh”). This Committee of 30 Member States verifies if Member States actually do things to implement UNESCO’s 2 Conventions and 12 Recommendations on education. It does this by checking the reports in which Member States mention the challenges and what they do to address them. This is the public part of their work, which you can find on UNESCO’s website. Furthermore the Committee also deals with cases of alleged human rights violations in all UNESCO’s fields of competence: education, but also science, culture and freedom of expression. Understandably, these discussions are more delicate and not open to the public.

The CR will meet from 15 October 2014 to discuss the challenges that countries will bring to UNESCO's attention during the 195th Executive Board session. As I'm currently preparing this Board, let me give you a preview of these educational challenges drawn from countries’ accounts of what they have recently done to implement UNESCO’s 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education:

1.       Discrimination: mostly ethnic or religious communities, people from rural areas, girls and women, immigrants and persons with disabilities.
2.       Lack of awareness about the fact that development requires knowledge and therefore education. Amongst the causes are cultural traditions, for example where girls are married instead of sent to school or where education is seen as a privilege for the rich or as a way to serve the state bureaucracy.
3.       Poverty: when you lack food and shelter, education is not a priority
4.       Educational system: incompatibility of residential schools and a nomadic lifestyle. Lack of facilities and teachers, especially for orphans and children in remote areas. Language barriers.
5.       Lack of cooperation between stakeholders: education only works if everybody participates: teachers, but also parents, counselors, administrators, supervisors, psychologists and the media. There’s however often a lack of promotion and information from the media about education, which is unfortunately enough to keep parents from sending their children to school. Other crucial information that is scarce is simply data about how serious the situation is or how well it is improving. For example: how many children are in school? What do they actually learn? Is legislation promoting education and is it applied? UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics in Montreal tries to collect these data worldwide to provide a global overview of the situation. This overview in turn guides the international community to mobilize support for education in different regions of the world.

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