The education sector went into reverse during the pandemic, with pupils across the world suffering massive losses in earning potential, said Gordon Brown, former UK prime minister and UN special envoy for global education.
Young people have been deprived of vital skills and trillions of dollars in future earnings in the past two years as schools have remained closed in many countries, said the former leader.
Even before Covid-19, 260 million children were not in school. Now Unesco has shown the figure is closer to 300 million, and about 24 million may never return to school, he said.
Mr Brown shared his message at the Rewired global education summit at the Expo 2020 Dubai site from Sunday to Tuesday.
“In 2020 and 2021, economies came to a standstill. But education progress has not just stalled, it has gone into reverse,” said Mr Brown.
“Due to the losses and learning resulting from Covid, today's youthful generation stands to lose a staggering 17 trillion dollars in lifetime earnings.”
Mr Brown said the pandemic had given the term “lost generation” a new meaning.
“The term lost generation is widely used when displaced young people bear the brunt of civil wars and conflicts,” he said. “But today, the lost generation resonates worldwide as the 1.6 billion children in 190 countries who were deprived of months of schooling during the pandemic struggle to catch up.”
“We have been set back in our ambition to make the 2020s the first decade in history where every child is at school and learning. But we will not give up on our ambition for 2030.
“Instead of an education system which develops only some of the potential of some of the young people in some countries, our global education system will develop all the potential of all young people in all countries.”
Investment needed to spark recovery
He said building back better meant we could not return to the old model.
“Instead, we need to, as the conference theme says, rewire and break from traditional policies and consider far more radical solutions than anything previously contemplated,” he said.
He said the global education crisis was as profound and as devastating as the global health crisis that the world had been living through, and carried more long-term danger.
Before Covid-19, more than half of the developing world's 10-year-olds could not read or understand a simple text.
The World Bank says this learning poverty rate could rise to 70 per cent. In the poorest countries it is close to 90 per cent.
Mr Brown called for leaders, politicians, and members of the public to take action and asked them to do more for the cause of education.
“I want our conference to be the launching pad for a new high-touch hi-tech approach, combining the essential human touch of those who teach with AI-powered adaptive learning technology that can help especially those furthest behind,” he said.
“At a time we need to do more, education is being given less.
“With the 2 billion cuts in education aid by 2022, and two-thirds of the world's poorest countries cutting their domestic education budgets due to Covid, less than 3 per cent of government stimulus packages have been allocated to education.
“If building back better is to happen, we need to make the case for the proper funding of education and in new ways. Building on the G7's recent promise of 40 million more school places for girls, we need now to see education as an investment and to increase its level.”
He invited the UAE and public and private donors to join the UK and the Netherlands in launching a powerful engine for global education at the UN transforming education summit in September.